Sunderland smart in being cautiously optimistic
After managing to secure late-season points at the Etihad, Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge, surely Sunderland shouldn't struggle as a relegation-bound team again?
That appears to be the common-sense view of experienced, knowledgeable football people ahead of the 2014-15 Premier League campaign. After all, seven points were taken from that trio of supposedly non-winnable games, and the tally would have been nine but for a late, barely deserved Manchester City equaliser.
But received wisdom is for others; Sunderland supporters know better. Genuine hope has been generated by the signing of Jack Rodwell from Manchester City, followed by encouraging wins in friendlies against Real Betis and Udinese, but forced optimism now takes over as Gus Poyet's men prepare for Saturday's kickoff at West Bromwich Albion.
A visit to the Hawthorns is not even a potential banana skin, one of those matches one that really should be won but might be wastefully lost. A glance at the recent past shows this to be distinctly unhappy hunting ground for Sunderland. Since 2009, the fixture has gone 1-0, 2-1, 4-0 and 3-0, all in the Baggies' favour.
And that opener is followed by Manchester United at home, a match that has not ended with a Sunderland win in the Premier League since 1996-97, a relegation season. Then comes a real banana skin of a game, QPR away, where a grim 3-1 defeat probably sealed Martin O'Neill's fate in the season before last.But only if I look back to the wide-eyed innocence of childhood do I recall a season beginning without hope being tempered by apprehension.
After the emotionally draining playoff final defeat against Charlton Athletic for promotion from the pre-Championship Division One 1998, there were twinges of uncertainty about Peter Reid's ability to revive his team -- cruelly defeated at Wembley on penalties after leading three times during the game -- for another attempt to return to the Premier League. But they romped to the Division One title, chalking up record points and goals as Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn tore opposing defences to shreds.
Even after that barnstorming season, many were unconvinced Sunderland were good enough to hold their own. The club provided the ideal answer, finishing seventh top in each of the next two Premier seasons.
Poyet has made a similar start to Sunderland management, leading the team to last season's astonishing survival just as Reid averted a humiliating drop to the third tier by a club that, until 1958, had never played outside the top flight. There are other comparisons. Reid, having taken the club back to the Premier League, made up for the close-season loss of Michael Bridges, Lee Clark and Allan ''Magic'' Johnston with some astute recruitment, adding the wise old Arsenal head of Steve Bould (and a younger ex-Gunner, Stefan Schwarz) to his squad.
So as the new season beckons, rational assessment as well as blind loyalty suggests less nervous times lie ahead. But doubts prevail; the most sensible predictions I have seen are modest in ambition, ranging from 10th to 14th. The latter would be no improvement on last season even if achieved without the same last-ditch heroics. Poyet aims higher, as he must, but comfortable mid-table may realistically be the best bet.
Injuries have cut at least one hole in my own guess at a possible starting lineup at WBA. Emanuele Giaccherini is definitely out; Poyet says Billy Jones is "touch and go."
Steven Fletcher still seems likely to be the lone attacker, though Connor Wickham -- whose future remains unclear -- will surely see some action. Jozy Altidore, upbeat in interviews after the disappointments of last season and Brazil, may find a place on the bench, too.
But the game's outcome could be decided elsewhere on the pitch. With Brown Ideye, a proven goal scorer, tipped to play some part for WBA after his signing from Dynamo Kyiv , Poyet needs John O'Shea and Wes Brown to be at their solid best in central defence. If the defence stands firm, can Poyet rely on Rodwell and, if chosen, Jordi Gomez to dominate in midfield and, with Adam Johnson able to switch from wing to wing, open up the WBA defence?
Sunderland supporters will remember with a wince the eccentric antics of Paolo Di Canio after last season's visit to the Hawthorns, the 3-0 defeat closely followed by his dismissal. Poyet's challenge is to send the sell-out away contingent home clapping their hands, not scratching their heads.