Patching together central midfield key for Bournemouth at Sunderland
Bournemouth's long trip north to take on Sunderland on April 29 has been made far more enjoyable after the club dismantled Middlesbrough 4-0 last time out and claimed a further three points towards Premier League survival. The club now sit comfortably on 38 points with four games to go but as Eddie Howe said in his post-match news conference after the recent Boro win his side are still four more points away from definite safety.
Personnel to start the match in central midfield is the main dilemma in the build-up to the clash at the Stadium of Light. Dan Gosling was pulled off before half-time against Boro with a recurring calf injury and there are hints this week that he is unlikely to be fit to face the Black Cats. Lewis Cook made a rare appearance as his replacement and he didn't look out of place but the Cherries are still worryingly short in the middle. The former Leeds player referred to this season as a "massive learning curve" and if selected for the remainder of the season to partner Harry Arter he still has far more Premier League education to come yet.
Jack Wilshere has already returned to Arsenal following his leg fracture putting the long-term future of Bournemouth's central midfield in even more doubt. Eddie Howe referred to his relationship with the England international as a "match made in heaven" but spoke only of Wilshere's time on the south coast in the past tense and made no suggestions of a potential return. This could be a far too in-depth way of interpreting Howe's quotes but the initial feeling is that Wilshere will not be playing his football at the Vitality Stadium next year.
Another player whose future remains a doubt is Max Gradel who has made just 11 appearances this season. The Ivory Coast international scored 17 goals in 31 league games for Saint-Etienne during the 2014-15 campaign but has struggled to hold down a spot in the Bournemouth side since switching back to England. He's got two years left on his deal at the club and at just 29 years old, he obviously has plenty of more playing years left in him. Howe praised his attitude and he should be given at least one more season to see if he can influence things at the club. He has decent dribbling ability and his unpredictability, in similar fashion to Ryan Fraser, make him a live wire whenever he is playing.
At the back, Simon Francis is playing himself into another season leading the Cherries. He's been a liability at times this season and some of his costly errors could have been easily avoided. However, over the past two months he's put in some fantastic performances alongside Steve Cook and is arguably one of the first names on the team sheet. Central defence has gone from being the weakest area in the team to one of the more secure. Cook has to take a lot of credit for this but Francis' recent dramatic improvement should also be given some credit.
The team for the Sunderland match is likely to remain the same besides the alterations in central midfield with Josh King and Benik Afobe ready to lead the line again. Their opponents have scored just twice in their last nine games and have claimed only two points from a possible 27. They are in a serious dire run of form and their only slight bit of momentum they can depend upon is their victory over Bournemouth earlier in the season. They admittedly haven't conceded as many goals as the likes of Hull City or Swansea, but the Bournemouth strike partnership assisted by the in-form Marc Pugh should have no trouble dispatching David Moyes' struggling side. A defeat would look embarrassing for the Cherries even though they are the away side.
On more bit of positive news leading into this weekend's clash, chief executive Neill Blake reaffirmed the club's ambition to have a new stadium built in time for the 2020-21 season. While Blake admitted they are still in the hunt of an appropriate site, the ambition will undoubtedly please everyone at the club. An established Premier League club playing at a proper Premier League stadium is Bournemouth's next target in their extraordinary story.
Will Kent is a freelance journalist who has worked for AFC Bournemouth, ESPN UK and ESPN FC, among others. Twitter: @WillKentSPORT