New boys giving Sunderland a boost in relegation scrap
Sunderland could have done with less illustrious opponents than Manchester United for a chance on Saturday to turn recent brighter performances into points.
Manager Sam Allardyce's side, second-bottom and in serious danger of finding yet another great escape beyond them, start as clear underdogs against the lacklustre United of Louis van Gaal's patchy reign.
The 1-0 home defeat to Manchester City may have been unfortunate, and the late comeback to draw 2-2 with Liverpool at Anfield was certainly full of spirit, but wins are desperately needed if Allardyce is to pocket his hefty survival bonus.
While no sympathy is needed for a manager who has made a handsome living from football, it is easy to understand the frustration he will now be feeling as Sunderland struggle to climb out of the bottom three. The January transfer window undoubtedly left his squad in better shape. Players who were simply not up to Premier League standard were found new homes and decent signings were made. It does not require an unrealistically upbeat outlook to sense that had Sunderland started the season with the men now at Allardyce's disposal, they would not be staring relegation in the face.
Whatever the outcome of midfielder Adam Johnson's trial, Sunderland are stronger in every department. The question that remains is whether this belated improvement has come soon enough to avoid the drop.
Allardyce calculates that he needs six wins to stay up. A glance at the remaining 13 fixtures suggests at least that number of theoretically winnable games. But since Sunderland have found it difficult to overcome fellow-strugglers, points must also come from teams higher up the Premier League.
It is safe to assume that United will arrive on Wearside for Saturday's early kickoff in confident mood.
History is hardly against them. Leave aside a couple of League Cup wins for Sunderland and it is necessary to return to 1997 and the Stadium of Light's predecessor, Roker Park, for the last time a visit from United resulted in a home victory. And if only to demonstrate that three points on Saturday would still leave Sunderland with plenty to do -- fourth-bottom is currently four points away -- that 2-1 victory of 19 years ago did not keep Sunderland up.
But if Allardyce wants to fire up his squad with video evidence that United are beatable, even by Sunderland, there is one clip he can turn to. In May 2014, under Gus Poyet, a sweetly struck early goal from Seb Larsson at Old Trafford was enough to take Sunderland to a points tally that would have ensured survival even without the home win against West Bromwich Albion that followed a few days later.
Allardyce must persuade his new-look squad that they are also better than the team Poyet was able to field that night. Lamine Kone already looks a solid companion for John O'Shea in central defence -- though Younes Kaboul will be keen to replace one of them on his own return from injury -- and Jan Kirchhoff has recovered well from his miserable debut at Tottenham Hotspur, where he conceded an own goal and penalty and generally seemed out of sorts in a 4-1 defeat.
Jermain Defoe's match-saving strike at Anfield showed he has bags of goalscoring potential left in him at 33 and he should prosper from the kind of service that Wahbi Khazri -- the newly-signed Tunisian international from Bordeaux -- gave him for the equaliser at Liverpool. If Khazri can also match the goal rate he managed in France, scoring on average in every third or fourth game, and Patrick van Aanholt maintains his own progress as a dangerous attacking wingback, Sunderland will start to worry Premier League defences rather more than ever so far this season.
United remain favourites in most neutral minds to leave Sunderland with all three points, dumping the home side into deeper relegation trouble. But if Allardyce's players, new boys and established first-teamers alike, can play with as much discipline as was shown at Anfield, and more urgency for the full 90 minutes, a precious morale-boosting win is just about possible.
Colin is ESPN FC's Sunderland blogger. Follow him on Twitter at @salutsunderland