Premier League Preview: Sunderland
Lessons from last season
Gus Poyet needs no reminder that while it is commendable to reach one cup final and get within shouting distance of another, it is dangerous to allow Premier survival to depend on beating Manchester United and Chelsea away during the last few games.
Sunderland supporters are programmed by history to look anxiously at the bottom end of each new fixture list. The coming season's run-in again includes a visit to Chelsea, this time as the final game. Unambitious as this may seem, the primary aim must be to secure a comfortable position somewhat sooner. That will be achieved if Poyet succeeds in restoring a fortress aspect to the Stadium of Light, where only five games were won last season.
Predicted starting lineup
Despite the acclaimed signing of Jack Rodwell from Manchester City, more must be done. Progress in strengthening a squad that languished at the bottom for most of last season had previously been slow and frustrating. Poyet insists his shopping is not yet over. What remains of it would be heartening if it included the return, in some form, of last season's loan star, the talented, hard-working Fabio Borini.
Loans are unpopular among fans but Santiago Vergini's return for another season, after last season's ultimately successful spell, reinforces Poyet's back four. Billy Jones, Jordi Gomez and Costel Pantilimon, all arriving on frees, and the purchase of Patrick van Aanholt are smart close-season additions and the club has room for manoeuvre on wages after offloading useful but limited players (notably Phil Bardsley, Craig Gardner and David Vaughan.) A couple of big late captures would do further wonders for morale.
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Vito Mannone's saves were responsible for a decent-sized chunk of the points that lifted Sunderland dramatically to safety. Pantilimon offers healthy competition, producing the club's strongest goalkeeping options since Craig Gordon and Simon Mignolet vied for the position. Will van Aanholt, signed from Chelsea, finally show the Premier League the form that has taken him close to a Netherlands cap? If so, his acquisition would be a massive coup.
Jordi Gomez adds some of the midfield flair that has been strikingly missing in recent seasons. With Rodwell on board and Lee Cattermole maturing at last -- though that has been said before -- there is the hint of a good balance of grit and quality. Guarded optimism on attacking prospects is also justified. Steven Fletcher, fit again, has looked sharp and Poyet will feel confident of more goals from Borini, if he is signed, and Connor Wickham if he stays. And can Jozy Altidore yet prove an effective Sunderland striker?
With more buys expected, and some players possibly on their way out, uncertainty clouds the likely shape of Poyet's squad. Will Borini be back? Can Poyet persuade Wickham to sign an extension to his contract, which has only a year to run, and is Johnson still a target for other clubs? Who else will be recruited? Until these issues are resolved, the immediate future is difficult to predict.
The collapse of efforts to sign Cristian Rodriguez from Atletico Madrid was disappointing, but seemed less so once Rodwell was signed. Doubts remain. In central defence, it would be folly to rely wholly on Wes Brown and John O'Shea. Both should each have at least another Premier season in them and are solid professionals. But they are also injury-prone and Poyet needs cover and competition in their positions.
Manager - ESPN FC profile
Poyet can be justly proud of his achievements since accepting the tall order of rescuing Sunderland from the mess into which Paolo Di Canio led them. The ultimate finish at 14th was astounding after a season in which the team found it hard enough just to climb off bottom spot. Reaching the FA Cup quarterfinals and the Capital One Cup final, where Manchester City were given a serious challenge for the trophy, was admirable. The great escape was breathtaking. Now comes the hard part.
Di Canio had also spurred Sunderland to improbable survival, only to suffer a catastrophic start to the next season. Before him, Steve Bruce and Martin O'Neill failed to build on early promise.
Di Canio at least had the excuse of Roberto De Fanti's wayward influence, as director of football, on comings and goings. Poyet insisted on, and seems to have, a more equitable relationship with De Fanti's successor, Lee Congerton. Once the dust has settled, he must prove his worth in a full season, with his own squad.
Until Jack Rodwell was paraded in his new No. 8 red and white shirt, Cattermole seemed the player whose form, discipline and fitness could define the coming season. An unreconstructed ruffian to many, he often shows signs of being a player of quality as well as commitment and passion, able to break down opposing attacks and launch Sunderland counter-attacks.
But Rodwell is now the foundation on which Poyet should build his squad. His experience at the top of the Premier League, and his tastes of international and Champions League football, suggest a player who could turn games in Sunderland's favour. Not since Jordan Henderson left for Liverpool has the club had such an accomplished box-to-box powerhouse. It is vital that he stays fit, finally shrugging off past hamstring problems, but a Rodwell available for almost every game could be the springboard for a fine season.
Predicted finish: 13th
Steve Bruce bemoaned the weight of unrealistic expectation among Sunderland's large following which, on cool analysis, has had to make do -- apart from the exciting promotion seasons and Peter Reid's successive seventh-top Premier League finishes --- with 40 years of mid-table anonymity and, more commonly, relegations suffered or narrowly avoided. Before the unhappy end to his managerial stint, he also delivered a 10th top finish for which he has never received adequate credit. Most fans would settle for that in May, as part of a longer-term project; 13th may be a likelier outcome.