New-look Sunderland confident ahead of QPR match
The more condescending kind of Manchester United supporter, unaware of what was about to happen in the League Cup at MK Dons, saw the visit to Sunderland last weekend as one of their "easy" games.
United were fortunate to get away from the Stadium of Light with a point.
Perhaps the worst approach Gus Poyet's team could take to Saturday's match at Queens Park Rangers would be that this is, in turn, one of the "easy" games of Sunderland's season.
It did seem that way back in March 2013, but a 3-1 defeat to a poor side that proceeded to go down probably sealed Martin O'Neill's fate as Sunderland manager. Few Sunderland supporters had expected such a dismal display; most had counted on at least a point.
Soon, O'Neill was gone, and the first of two great escapes in successive seasons began. Paolo Di Canio accomplished one improbable survival, grabbing just enough points in the remaining games to keep Sunderland in the Premier League. Poyet's even-more-praiseworthy achievement, given the mess he inherited from PDC, was to do it again last season. Now, Sunderland supporters feel entitled to believe, it is a very different kind of team that returns to QPR's Loftus Road home.
Do not read too much into the 3-0 win in the Capital One Cup game at Birmingham City on Wednesday. This was a much more hard-won victory, against limited Championship opposition, than the scoreline suggests. But there was no slipping on banana skins in the way Louis van Gaal's misfits managed in Milton Keynes the night before. Poyet will feel his own much-changed side, after weathering a mild, first-half storm, did all that could be expected of them after the interval.
The big Sunderland contingent in the small crowd naturally teased Birmingham manager Lee Clark throughout. Clark, a lifelong Newcastle United fan, succumbed to Peter Reid's persuasive powers to play -- and play exceedingly well -- for Sunderland as they romped to promotion in 1999. He was sent packing in the close season after being photographed at a Newcastle appearance at Wembley wearing a T-shirt that was mildly insulting toward Sunderland supporters.
Now that he has grown up, he looks back on the incident with a professional's regret. But how the visiting fans enjoyed chanting "we always win three-nil" at the end, recalling with glee Sunderland's two most recent visits to St James' Park.
Saturday should present no greater problems for Poyet than Clark's Birmingham did in the midweek Cup game. But the Uruguayan coach will know that Rangers will be better equipped to seize the kind of chances Birmingham had before Jordi Gomez, Adam Johnson and Connor Wickham made no mistake with theirs at St Andrew's.
Harry Redknapp has presided over a difficult start to QPR's return to the Premier, with a narrow defeat to Hull City followed by a thrashing at Spurs. Then, Wednesday, Redknapp and QPR endured a League Cup loss to Burton Albion that the manager called a poor performance but one he doesn't regret after trotting out a largely reserve side.
But Redknapp is as shrewd a battler at the foot of the table as they come, and I expect a tough game. But I also expect another avoidance of defeat. Sunderland's opening games, at West Brom and at home to Man United, could have easily left the team pointless. Instead, sufficient resilience was shown to enable them to come back when behind to snatch a couple of draws from what last season would have felt like losing positions.
Poyet at last has good, attacking full-backs -- even if Patrick van Aanholt, on the left, needs to improve the rather important defensive aspect of his role -- along with choices in midfield and attack. He does need at least one more option up front; the strikers at his disposal -- Connor Wickham, Steven Fletcher and Jozy Altidore -- have yet to convince fans they pose a serious, constant threat to Premier defences.
But pending further strengthening from late moves in the transfer window, the squad has balance, stability and backup.
The most slippery banana skin in top-flight English football is still the one that dumps teams in desperate relegation battles. On the strength of what Sunderland have shown so far -- early in the season though it might be -- it will now be less difficult to keep a firm footing. There should be no need for a third great escape in a row.