Bournemouth face Sunderland in Premier League survival scrap
Before beating Norwich 3-0 last Saturday, Bournemouth's biggest victory of the season was a 2-0 win over Sunderland at the Vitality Stadium on Sep. 19 that was even more comprehensive than the scoreline suggests.
The victory was their first at home in the Premier League and the first time that Eddie Howe's team had kept a clean sheet. Keeping goals out has proven harder to come by in subsequent matches but that is improving.
And even though Howe's men have struggled with mounting injuries, only one of the usual backline of Simon Francis, Tommy Elphick, Steve Cook and Charlie Daniels has been missing. Elphick should be back within a few weeks but the Cherries have tightened up in the club captain's absence. Sylvain Distin has featured occasionally, mainly due to knocks to Cook, but Francis has been the main replacement for Elphick with Adam Smith brought in at right-back.
Francis is playing in the Premier League for the first time and is in the form of his life. Though the former Southend and Charlton defender will be 31 next month, this week he was given a new three and a half-year contract.
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Francis has always made a positive contribution in attack and continues to do so, but has also been a commanding presence in the centre of defence, where a weakness at set pieces is improving. Bournemouth have conceded 37 goals this season, but only eight in their last eight games. Three of those came in the 3-1 home defeat to West Ham on Jan. 12, when Howe's team had a night to forget.
All teams have such days and each time the Premier League debutants have suffered a setback, the response has been exactly what their manager would want. After losing 2-0 at Arsenal, a 0-0 draw at Leicester was achieved. It was a valuable point that few of the Dorset club's rivals for relegation are likely to emulate.
Consistency is now required, so there is no need to bounce back from results like the defeats to Arsenal and West Ham. There are clear indications that trend is beginning to emerge with just two defeats in the last 10 league games. Howe knows such form should keep his team clear of relegation but beating clubs in the drop zone is also necessary to put some distance between his side and those in trouble.
Benik Afobe did not impress on his debut against West Ham but then neither did any of his colleagues. The England under-21 star looked far more like a £9million player against Norwich.
Another new signing, Juan Iturbe, did not feature in that game as Howe gave Yann Kermorgant what even then looked distinctly like a chance to say goodbye to a club he has served with distinction.
Kermorgant's contract was extended until the summer of 2017 at the start of this season but the popular Frenchman completed a rumoured move to Reading this week.
Even with Kermorgant's departure, Howe's squad is still replete with forwards like Iturbe and Lewis Grabban, who missed the Norwich game due to a minor injury but could return to the squad against Sunderland.
With Josh King, Tokelo Rantie and Lee Tomlin also primarily forwards, Howe has hinted that he might change his formation.
In Wilson's absence, Bournemouth have mainly played 4-1-4-1 with occasional experiments with 4-3-3.
But any radical change seems unlikely for such as vital game as the one at the Stadium of Light, which is a real six-pointer.
Steve Menary is a freelance journalist who covers football for the likes of the BBC and World Soccer.