Sunderland being a Premier League club in 2015-16 is something of an achievement in itself. The last three seasons have seen managerial changes as the board desperately tried to keep the club up. With Dick Advocaat being persuaded to stay on as manager for one more year after guiding them to safety last season, many fans will be hoping to see them enjoy a safer season. In reality, the squad hasn’t improved that much and it is likely to be another nerve-racking final couple of months to the season for the Black Cats’ supporters.
Story of Last Season
Last season was a case of déjà vu for Sunderland supporters as the club found themselves in a relegation battle before a new manager was brought in to keep them up, maintaining Premier League status by the skin of their teeth. Whilst Gus Poyet wasn’t as controversial as Paulo Di Canio, the Uruguayan was still extremely emotional on the sideline, something that wasn’t reflected in his team’s performances as they recorded a staggering 17 draws during the campaign. There were also some heavy defeats, most memorably the 8-0 thumping by Southampton at St Mary’s. Dick Advocaat was brought in as a short term solution and oversaw victories against Newcastle, Southampton and Everton as the Mackems guaranteed themselves a ninth consecutive season of top flight football.
Sunderland have looked to bolster their defence during the off season with Sebastian Coates’ loan move from Liverpool being made permanent. The Uruguayan failed to impress on Merseyside but arrived in the league in high demand after a string of impressive performances for Uruguay. Compatriot Poyet used him sparingly but Advocaat utilised him much more often, something that can be expected to continue this season with John O’Shea and Wes Brown both being another year older.
Advocaat has also brought in former Tottenham captain Younes Kaboul to strengthen his central defensive options. Kaboul lost his place in the Spurs side last season after a series of mistakes so the Stadium of Light faithful will be hoping Advocaat can bring the best out of the Frenchman.
Adam Matthews has been brought in from Celtic for a paltry £2 million, with the versatile full-back being able to play on both sides. Matthews made his Wales debut at the age of 19 but hasn’t featured in recent squads under Chris Coleman and will be looking to resurrect his international career with the Welsh looking well placed to qualify for Euro 2016 and top seeds in their 2018 World Cup group. The incentive of being part of an international tournament should spur Matthews on and Sunderland will be hoping they see the best of the 23 year old after racking up 150 appearances for Celtic including 30 in Europe.
Advocaat has also brought in the versatile Dutchman Jeremain Lens from Dynamo Kiev for an undisclosed fee. Lens can play anywhere across the front line and arrives off the back of scoring 19 goals in 49 games during a two year spell in the Ukraine.
Jermain Defoe – Goals win games in football matches, and Defoe has had a knack of finding the net throughout his career. After a brief spell in the MLS, the former England man returned in January to help Sunderland survive with his spectacular volley against Newcastle likely to make him a cult hero on Wearside whatever happens this season. However with Steven Fletcher and Danny Graham not regularly finding the net and goals from midfield limited, Defoe will shoulder the burden of the club’s goal-scoring exploits. If he can recapture his form of old, Sunderland will be hoping for a calmer season but if his age catches up with him, fans may be wondering where goals are going to come from.
Lee Cattermole – For all his misdemeanours, Cattermole is actually an extremely accomplished Premier League midfielder and often helps to break down opposition attacks. With Sunderland’s centre half positions looking like they are up for grabs, Cattermole’s role in shielding them could prove pivotal, particularly in the early stages of the season. However, the Englishman has a knack of picking up stupid bookings and sendings off, something his side cannot afford. A disciplined Cattermole would be a huge asset for Sunderland and supporters will be hoping the calming influence of Advocaat will see the club captain maturing into a better player.
Costel Pantilimon – With the defensive issues at the club already highlighted, the former Manchester City stopper could be called upon numerous times during the upcoming season. After replacing Vito Mannone following the Southampton debacle last season, the Romanian helped rebuild confidence in the Sunderland back line. With the potential for the back four in front of him to be continually changing, Advocaat will hope Pantilimon’s experience will help his side keep things tight at the back.
Advocaat favoured the 4-3-3 formation at the end of last season and the players at the club suggest this will remain the same. Sunderland now have good competition for places with Billy Jones, Younes Kaboul, Jack Rodwell and Steven Fletcher all likely to fancy their chances of breaking into the team. Fletcher provides the option for the team to play with two strikers and the classic little and large combination while Rodwell will provide a more physical presence if Advocaat decides to play a second defensive midfielder alongside Cattermole.
A man with vast experience in numerous leagues throughout the world, many were surprised Advocaat took the Sunderland job with the club facing relegation from the top tier. However, the Dutchman utilised that experience to help the club survive against the odds and after being persuaded by the board and fans to remain as manager, now faces the prospect of a full season on Wearside. He currently holds a position of strength with fans firmly behind him and as long as Sunderland keep themselves above the relegation places throughout the season, there is no reason to see this changing.
First Six Fixtures
Sunderland’s first six fixtures could prove pivotal to their season with trips to Leicester, Aston Villa and Bournemouth facing them. There is also a proverbial ‘six pointer’ at home to newly promoted Norwich with Swansea and Spurs the other two sides to visit the Stadium of Light. With four fixtures against clubs likely to be battling with them to avoid relegation and two further home fixtures, Advocaat will be hoping to make the most of the opportunities presented to his side and acquire a minimum of 10 points to open the campaign. Any more and the belief on Wearside will grow dramatically, significantly less and Sunderland will already be hoping to just stave off relegation for a further season.
Final Standing Prediction – 16th
Sunderland have been struggling for the past 3 years and have only finished higher than 13th once during their promotion back to the top flight in 2006-07. Unfortunately, there is nothing to suggest this season will any different but with the calm and experienced Advocaat in the managerial hot seat instead of the eccentric Di Canio or Poyet, The Boot Room expect The Mackems to just about survive another relegation scrap.[separator type=”thin”]
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It’s crunch time for Stoke City under Paul Lambert
The next two months are crucial for the future of Stoke City.
There are only eight games left of the Premier League season and with Manchester City running away with the Premier League title the attention now turns to the race for survival.
Stoke City began the season celebrating their tenth consecutive year as a top-flight club and yet the campaign could ultimately culminate in relegation to the Sky Bet Championship.
The warning signs were there in the summer when star winger Marko Arnautovic forced through a transfer to West Ham United and claimed that the Potters ‘lacked ambition’, something that the club hierarchy strenuously denied before forcing Mark Hughes to be reliant on free transfers and loan signings.
The further departure of club stalwarts such as Jonathan Walters and Glen Whelan was also a loss in the dressing room and behind the scenes, if not necessarily on the pitch.
The campaign actually got off to a promising start as Stoke secured four points from their opening two home fixtures against Arsenal and Manchester United, but the wheels quickly began to fall off.
Hughes had opted to deploy a new look 3-4-3 formation and, despite some early success, it soon became apparent that the Potters did not have the personnel or quality to make the system work.
The sight of Mame Biram Diouf, a striker by trade, stranded as a wingback pretty much summarises the tactical naivety of Hughes and his unwillingness to revert to a back four, despite poor results, saw the club slip into the relegation zone.
Ultimately, it has been Stoke’s inability to defend that has underpinned their demise this season.
At one stage, the Potters had the unenviable record of possessing the worst defensive record of any club in the top flight of European football, whilst only West Ham United have conceded more goals or kept fewer clean sheets in the Premier League this season.
Mark Hughes was dismissed in late January after Stoke City had been knocked out of the FA Cup by fourth-tier Coventry City and were stranded in the Premier League relegation zone.
There is little doubt that the Potters were correct to part ways with the Welshman, although in hindsight the club hierarchy had remained too loyal for too long.
Stoke’s attempt to hire a successor was chaotic, disorganised and became something of a soap opera.
Gary Rowett was the first manager to publically turn down the job after being approached and was swiftly followed by Quique Sánchez Flores, who conducted a swift U-turn within twenty-four hours of reportedly agreeing to leave Espanyol, and Martin O’Neil.
Stoke supporters were eventually left with the uninspiring appointment of Paul Lambert who, quite clearly, was nobodies first choice for the role.
The former Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers boss has certainly had a positive impact since arriving in the final weeks of January and has undoubtedly made the team more organised and harder to beat.
However, Lambert has overseen just one win in seven fixtures, at a time when the club are desperate for points, despite having been handed a favourable run of fixtures that included Huddersfield Town, Watford, Brighton, Bournemouth, Southampton and Leicester City.
The 48-year-old will need to stimulate a dramatic improvement in results of The Potters are going to have any hope of avoiding the drop.
On paper, the current Stoke City squad consists of a core contingent of proven international players that should have the quality and experience to pull away from the relegation zone.
Jack Butland, who is vying to be England’s first choice goalkeeper, Kurt Zouma, one of the most highly rated young defenders in Europe, Joe Allen, a central midfielder of undoubted quality, and Swiss superstar Xherdan Shaqiri make up the spine of the starting eleven, whilst Moritz Bauer and Badou Ndiaye arrived in January to add further quality.
However, there is an obvious lack of creativity in the current squad and the responsibility for facilitating goal scoring opportunities rests solely on the shoulders of Shaqiri.
In addition to this, Stoke lack a proven goal scorer with Mame Biram Diouf (inconsistent), Peter Crouch (one dimensional) and Saido Berahino (who has yet to score in over two years) the only options at Paul Lambert’s disposal.
This imbalance in the squad has been reflected in recent results. Since Lambert’s arrival in late-January Stoke have lost just once in seven games, against the champions-elect Manchester City, and have kept three clean sheets in the process.
However, in the same period, they have only won once, in Lambert’s first match against Huddersfield Town, and have found the net just five times – three of which were provided by Shaqiri.
It is the lack of creativity and goals that is undermining any shoots of recovery at the Bet365 Stadium.
Everton (H), Arsenal (A), Tottenham (H), West Ham United (A), Burnley (H), Liverpool (A), Crystal Palace (H) and Swansea City (A).
Stoke City have a semi-difficult run of fixtures but there are certainly opportunities to accumulate points over the closing weeks of the season.
Home games against Everton, Crystal Palace and Swansea City are ‘must win’ based on the fact that the Potters have the worst away record in England, having won just once on their travels this campaign, but trips to Olympic Stadium and the Liberty Stadium could provide a chance to rectify that.
Fundamentally, if Stoke can get to the final two games of the season and still be in with a chance of securing safety then they will be relatively pleased. It could all come down to the last day of the season with a mouth-watering fixture against Swansea.
Will They Survive?
Although Paul Lambert has certainly had a positive impact since being appointed in late-January, making the team more organised and harder to beat, it is difficult to see where Stoke City will secure the three or four wins required to guarantee safety.
The Potters have won just six games all season and the lack of creativity throughout the side and the absence of a proven striker leaves you wondering where the goals are going to come from.
There is certainly still hope for Stoke supporters, but Lambert will need to facilitate a dramatic improvement in performances if he is to guide the club to safety.
It will be an achievement if he can get the Potters to the final two games of the season, against Crystal Palace and Swansea City, and still be in with a chance of surviving.
Paul Dummett’s Wales snub will please Newcastle United fans
The Welshman turned down an international call-up this week.
Paul Dummett has been one of the standout players for Newcastle United this season and his performances haven’t passed Ryan Giggs by.
The new Wales National Team manager has admitted that he has spoken to the left-back with a view to a return to the squad. The Chronicle reported the following quotes:
“I had a conversation with Paul Dummett, because he hasn’t been in the last few squads, and he just felt that it wasn’t the right time to come back.
“He wanted to concentrate on his Newcastle career which I have to respect, and we move on.
“He (Dummett) said that he wanted to concentrate on Newcastle’s relegation fight so I have to respect that at the moment. In the future we will wait and see.”
That will be music to the ears of Newcastle supporters and Rafa Benitez, as Dummett has emerged as a key player for the team since his return from injury.
This season in the Premier League, the Magpies have conceded only 13 times in the 12 matches that the 26-year-old has started.
That underlines how effective he has been and his importance to the team’s chances of staying in the top-flight.
Although he may not be the most exciting player to watch, Dummett is very good at carrying out a role for the team and it is no surprise that he has become one of Benitez’s most trusted lieutenants.
The Spanish manager enjoys to coach players that listen and carry out his instructions to the letter and his left-back certainly fits under that description.
A quick look at the stats shows how rounded Dummett is as a defender.
He averages 2.83 ball recoveries, 0.78 blocks and 6.85 clearances per ninety minutes. Meanwhile, he is very good in the air as shown by his aerial duels win rate of 57.41%.
He was once a scapegoat for Newcastle supporters and the focus of anger when things weren’t going well. The reason for that was his lack of technical skill, which would make him stand out on the pitch.
However, that side of his game has developed and he is now serviceable in possession. Dummett isn’t going to be cutting sides open with his attacking threat down the left, but he understands his own limitations and that has seen him improve as a player.
The 26-year-old has been part of Wales squads in the past, but he has only played once for his country and his lack of game-time may be a reason why he stepped away from the international arena.
Last summer, Newcastle issued a statement to explain why Dummett withdrew from the squad for the World Cup qualifier against Serbia, which featured the following quote:
“After a gruelling campaign with the Magpies, in which he played through the pain barrier on several occasions, 25-year-old Dummett is keen to recharge his batteries and spend time with his family and friends in order to ensure he is at peak form and fitness for his hometown team’s return to the Premier League and what promises to be a big campaign for both him and the club.
“He has been supported in his decision by Newcastle boss Rafa Benítez.
“However, Dummett – who has represented his country from youth level all the way to the senior team – has not closed the door on his international career and hopes to represent the Dragons again in the future.”
It is clear that Newcastle is the priority for Dummett, but it is interesting that he refused to close the door on Wales last summer.
A managerial change since then may lead to further opportunities for the left-back and it is easy to see why Giggs has already reached out to him.
The Newcastle full-back has developed into a Premier League calibre player under Benitez and he will offer an upgrade on the options currently in the Wales squad.
For him, as a player, it may be beneficial to play international football and gain experience at the highest level. Although he didn’t agree to come back at this time, it would be a surprise if he doesn’t return to the fold in the near future. Both parties would benefit from that.
Salif Sane is the centre-back Everton must sign in the summer
The Senegal defender has been in fine form for Hannover 96 this season.
Salif Sane may not be a player well known to many fans in England, but this season he has emerged as a superstar in German football.
The 27-year-old has been in incredible form for Hannover 96 this season. According to the stats aggregator, WhoScored, Sane is rated as the second-best player in the Bundesliga, with only Bayern Munich’s James Rodriguez ahead of him.
His form should surely have caught the eye of Everton.
The Toffees have had a torrid time defensively this season.
Ashley Williams has been in awful form and has lost the backing of fans with his recent red card versus Burnley.
Michael Keane has struggled to replicate his Burnley form at Goodison Park.
Phil Jagielka’s age is catching up with him whilst Mason Holgate has been erratic.
The less said about loan signing Eliaquim Mangala the better. With Ramiro Funes Mori sidelined for most of the campaign, Everton have leaked goals.
Sane could be the perfect plug.
The Senegal defender, who came through the ranks at Bordeaux and later Nancy, is exactly what Everton need.
Sane is a no-nonsense defender whose main aim is to keep out goals. Defending is his first priority.
One area of his game where he is imperious is in the air. Not many players beat the 6ft 5 ins powerhouse in an aerial battle.
This season has been a breakthrough campaign for Sane.
This summer he will be in the Senegal squad at the World Cup in Russia, with plenty expected of a side containing the likes of Sadio Mane and Keita Balde Diao.
Sane would join his international colleague Idrissa Gana Gueye at Everton and would arrive more than capable of finally steadying the ship in Everton’s woefully inept defensive unit.
If not Sane, then someone else, but it is fair to say not many players in Everton’s price-range would be able to have the impact the Senegal defender might if given the chance.
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