Sunderland seek win over Hull to spark push for Premier League survival
Sunderland face a crucial bottom of the table clash at home to Hull City on Saturday in the knowledge that a win is the only outcome capable of satisfying their anxious supporters. While it is far too early in the Premier League season for one match to decide any team's fate, the significance of the game is lost on nobody.
Banished to the stands after an outburst during Sunderland's EFL Cup defeat at Southampton on Oct. 26, manager David Moyes saw his side's first league win of the season 10 days later, with goals from Victor Anichebe and Jermain Defoe sealing victory at Bournemouth.
However, Moyes can have been under no illusion this was merely a start. Sunderland remain six points adrift of safety, without taking account of goal difference, and would still be two points behind third-bottom Hull in the event of a home win on Saturday. In truth, another big Stadium of Light crowd can probably expect a match high on nerves and short on quality.
Hull's recent record at the ground, and in home games against Sunderland, is hardly encouraging for Moyes. Twice in successive seasons in 2014, Sunderland registered uplifting victories over Newcastle United at St James' Park only to suffer humiliating home defeats -- 3-1 and 2-0 -- to Hull in each ensuing game.
Since then, Hull have had another season in the Championship and lost Steve Bruce, the manager who took them straight back up via the playoffs. Many fans are angry with the approach of owner Assem Allam, feeling his refusal to prove adequate funding drove Bruce away and angered by his contentious efforts to re-brand the club as Hull Tigers.
But after a six-game losing run, they rebounded in their last game before the international break, beating Southampton 2-1 for Mike Phelan's first victory since his permanent appointment as head coach. Phelan's side will be no pushovers at Sunderland and the balance of pressure, given the five-point difference between bottom and third-bottom, favours Hull.
If Defoe's cool winning penalty is discounted, Victor Anichebe was one of two Sunderland heroes at Bournemouth. His power and determination even when carrying an injury were hugely impressive and loudly appreciated by the visiting fans who chanted his name throughout. Sunderland won because of his two decisive contributions, scoring the first half equaliser and winning the second half penalty.
At the other end, Jordan Pickford was outstanding in goal. One late save was world class -- he is not in the England squad without good reason and Moyes may have to fight hard to keep him, with bigger clubs expected to prowl in the January transfer window.
The clear vote from supporters is that Moyes should persist with the strikers, Defoe again partnering Anichebe in a 4-4-2 formation, against Hull. The manager identifies flaws with this system in the modern game, but both players also offered useful defensive backup at Bournemouth and Moyes does not rule out a repeat in his preparations for Saturday's game, provided Anichebe is fit.
There's better news on the wider injury front. Moyes has seen several keys players succumb to long or longish term layoffs but goalkeeper Vito Mannone is now fit again, though surely unlikely to displace the in-form Pickford, Adnan Januzaj is already back in contention and Jack Rodwell, Lee Cattermole and Jan Kirchhoff may also be available with others nearing returns.
Moyes seems likely to stick with the defence that managed to cling on to precious points at Bournemouth, with Billy Jones and Patrick van Aanholt flanking Lamine Kone and Papy Djilobodji. Steven Piennar, sent off in that game, is suspended and Moyes may opt for Wahbi Khazri and Januzaj to accompany Duncan Watmore, scorer of an excellent goal for England Under-21s in midweek, and Didier Ndong in midfield.
Sunderland have the players and home advantage to overcome the limited challenge of Hull and it is impossible to over-estimate the impact a win would have on the morale of players and supporters, whether or not it proved sufficient to lift them out of bottom place.
But it also impossible to underestimate Sunderland's occasional weakness of being unable rise to the occasion.
Colin is ESPN FC's Sunderland blogger. Follow him on Twitter at @salutsunderland