What do you do with the toughest team in the Premier League to project? One that should have won at Old Trafford, beat Liverpool and Arsenal, and then proceeded to go on a 14-match winless streak. A team that featured a 24-goal scorer, but at times couldn’t score against the weakest clubs in the league, and finished the season with 13 losses away from home? A team with a player who went from captain one month to being shown the gate the next?
By now, you know I have no idea where to put Sunderland, so we’ll try right in the middle and go from there. Few teams can match the duo of Darren Bent and Kenwyne Jones up front, and few teams have the fan support the Black Cats enjoy at the Stadium of Light. But there also might not be a team as maddeningly all over the place. Can Steve Bruce find that consistency that he couldn’t last year (and Roy Keane couldn’t before him). If he can, they could make a run at Europe:
2009-10 standing: 13th
Gaffer: Steve Bruce (3rd season)
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Best new signing: Ahmed Al-Muhammadi – A perfect signing for Sunderland because I have no idea what to make of him. Right now, Egypt has the best national team in Africa, and Al-Muhammadi is a regular in that side, and he’s only 22. Sunderland needs the defensive help, and Al-Muhammadi can be an offensive force from the wing that they lacked as well. But – as Bruce should know better than anyone – Egyptians don’t have the best record in the Premier League, and if Al-Muhammadi was that good, wouldn’t someone else in Europe have grabbed him before this summer? I guess we’ll find out.
Biggest loss: Lorik Cana – I say biggest, but this is probably addition by subtraction for Sunderland. I thought the Albanian would do well for Sunderland, too, so I was wrong, but his tackling was: a) not good; and b) dangerous, Cana had nine yellow cards last season and never seemed to get the defensive midfield role he was playing. It wasn’t for lack of effort, but I think Sunderland did well to cut their losses here, even if he wore the captain’s armband for part of last season.
Key player: Lee Cattermole – Cattermole was never really himself last season, injuries limited him to only 19 starts in the Premier League. The 22-year-old will try to succeed where Cana failed, dropping into that holding midfield role and helping out what looks like it could be a fairly suspect defense, particularly in the middle.
Random fact: Darren Bent’s 24 goals put him behind only Didier Drogba and Wayne Rooney (and Bent had an outside shot at winning the scoring crown going into the last game of the season), but Bent recorded only 1 assist in the entire 2009-2010 campaign.
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Well, I’ll turn it over to you, whom whould you start in the middle of your defense? You figure Michael Turner will occupy one spot if healthy, but the other? Anton Ferdinand has shown flashes of brilliance, but he’s 25 now and his inconsistency has mirrored Sunderland’s. They signed Titus Bramble from Wigan, and he actually had a decent season last year, but – like Ferdinand – he’s not the most reliable. Paulo da Silva had a very good World Cup, but didn’t impress Bruce all that much last season (only 12 league starts). And it looks like it will be 21-year-old Belgian Simon Mignolet in goal (at least until Craig Gordon can come back), and although he’s been impressive in the preseason, he’s coming from a club that was in the Belgian second division just two years ago.
Offensively, Bent needs some help. He scored 24 goals, Jones scored nine, and no one else for Sunderland scored more than two last season.
There was a time – right about the time Bent’s ball was hitting a balloon and going past Pepe Reina in October – that Sunderland thought they could beat anyone and there was real hope for a push to Europe (of course, two months later they were flirting with the relegation zone). Even at the end of the season – like when they dismantled Champions League-bound Tottenham – they proved they can play with the best.
The biggest problem was trying to get some distribution to Bent and Jones, and Sunderland has been trying to rectify that problem by signing players like Paraguyan Christian Riveros. If the Black Cats can hold the ball a little, Bent and Jones could have an absolute monster campaign. Fraizer Campbell and Kieran Richardson are also still hanging around, both are young enough to maybe have a breakout season and that would make Sunderland very dangerous.
To be honest, your guess is probably as good as mine. If Bent returns to his torrid form, gets himself a little help, and a mistake-free defense (and goalkeeper), Sunderland is really a legitimate threat to just about everyone. But success in the league comes through consistency, and that is something that has been in short order with the Black Cats since their return to the Premiership two seasons ago. So, while my duty here is to give you a preview as to how well Sunderland will do in the Premiership, I really have no idea.
I don’t think Steve Bruce does, either.