Filed: Friday, 3rd February 2006
By: Matthew Coker
Believe it or not, this is the biggest game of the week. Last Saturday was the distraction of the cup and I told you last week that we might as well write off the game at Highbury as a non starter and focus on the all important six pointer, home to bottom of the league, Sunderland.
It is difficult to imagine a team more in trouble than the Makems, though their neighbours and arch rivals, Newcastle may be able to compete when their new management team gets its feet in the technical area. Sunderland are almost certainly relegated and unless they buck their ideas up, on course for the lowest number of top flight points in history (the previous lowest was Stoke in 1984/85 with 17). They have so far achieved a total of 9 points from a possible 69 and based on their last performance at Middlesbrough, it is difficult to see how they will reach double figures.
The points have come from away wins at local rivals Middlesbrough and on their last trip, at the Hawthorns. They have picked up single points at home against West Brom, Bolton Wanderers and the mighty Irons, in a game that looked for all intents and purposes like a Championship game and featured Super Tom having a real stinker. It is not a surprise to see a newly promoted side struggling but surely last year’s Championship Champions would have been expected to fare better than they have.
The boss is Mick McCarthy, the Yorkshireman with the honest attitude. His first half season with Sunderland in the Premiership saw him take over a side that was all but relegated and finish the job off without any sniff of another victory. His side had two decent seasons in the Championship, reaching the play offs in the first year and being crowned Champions at The Boleyn last year. The top flight does seem to be exposing his lack of tactical nous and the success he had at unearthing bargains, such as Dean Whitehead and Liam Lawrence in the fizzy pop, has deserted him this year.
The fans have been quite loyal, sticking with him this year and singing his name until the first serious rumblings of discontent came midweek. The defeat by Middlesbrough, themselves a team that seem destined not to win another game, by a 3-0 margin and with such ease, meant the first choruses of “McCarthy Out” were heard, though it was just a minority of the crowd. There was also the much reported distribution of season tickets in the direction of the technical area as a means of protest (lucky we’ve not had to resort to that, a wayward plastic season ticket could have Pard’s eye out).
In goal is Kelvin Davis, signed in the summer from Ipswich for £1.25m. He has performed reasonably, considering the defence he has in front of him, and in particular made a significant contribution to keeping the score respectable against Chelsea.
The two centre backs are Scottish International, Steve Caldwell and Republic of Ireland international, Gary Breen. Caldwell was always going to struggle to win the fans over as he graduated from the Toon Academy and perhaps, because of his past, his no nonsense defensive style and consistent performances have been slightly under rated this season. He does collect yellow cards for fun, though.
The Makems, who seemed fairly content with Breen’s contribution last season, have realised that Premiership strikers make their captain’s contribution to defending, appear on a par with Victoria Beckham’s contribution to Molecular Nanotechnology. .Unfortunately for us, Breen may bottle, sorry miss, the game with a groin strain, with George McCartney a possible replacement.
The wide defensive players should be former Gooner, Justin Hoyte and former Chester man, Danny Collins. Ex-Liverpool defender, Stephen Wright is back in contention for a start following a knee ligament injury that has kept him out of the team since the opening day of this season.
On the left wing is the original, Julio Geordio, the Argentinean Arca, who made the best possible start to his Sunderland career by scoring on his debut against West Ham in 2000. On the right wing is likely to be Liam Lawrence, one of McCarthy’s bargains, poached from Mansfield Town. He has weighed in with three goals so far this season and has probably been the in form player of the last few games.
The central midfield pairing features another bargain, Dean Whitehead, signed from Oxford United who has put away four goals this season and enjoyed recent speculation linking him with a move to Liverpool. His midfield partner is Tommy Miller, signed on a free from Ipswich in the summer. Mick McCarthy signed him for his goalscoring ability, noting the 15 that he scored in the Championship last season though he has only managed one league goal this season, against us. Christian Bassilla, back from injury offers an alternative.
Up front, the most expensive signing of the summer was Jon Stead, a snip at £1.8m, who has so far managed to avoid putting the ball in the onion bag in 18 appearances. I attribute this to their training methods, where being matched against Gary Breen every day would mean that whoever you played against on Saturday would seem like a mixture of Bobby Moore, Franco Baresi and Franz Beckenbauer. Jon shouldn’t pose too much of a problem to Anton and Gabbidon.
Frenchman Anthony Le Tallac has been playing as Stead’s striking partner and has managed four to goals to date. The youngster is on loan from Liverpool and has shown some promise but has a propensity to miss simple chances. Kevin Kyle is back in contention, the big Scotsman has been out with a hip injury for all of this and most of last season but according to the official Sunderland website “is almost certain to get his first Premiership start for 18 months”. This is most likely to be smoke and mirrors before they surprise us with the Stead – Le Tallac combo but even considering starting a player with so little match fitness shows how desperate things have got.
Before I get onto the tricky business of predicting Saturday’s result I want to ponder for a moment on just how well this season has gone so far and mention the heroics of Wednesday night. As I left Highbury, I turned to Nairnster and said that I was just waiting for the alarm call so that I could wake up in that Bristol hotel with the mother of all hangovers on Playoff final day. Because to be fair, all that has happened since then has been akin to a pretty good dream.
Following on from total football and sexy football, we have developed a style that can only be described as venus flytrap football. We are happy to spend large periods of the game in relative inactivity, seducing the opposition into a feeling of safety before attacking with the speed and venom of a cobra.
The counter attack has been used to great success by recent league winning Arsenal and Man Yoo sides but by mobilising an attacking unit at speed, bodies in the box in a wave. We are efficiency personified as it takes one or two of us, any pair from Harewood, Zamora, Matty and Yossi are enough to create and often convert the chance.
It takes incredible skill to not only mobilise personnel but also the ball at that precise moment to create that chance and I am sure we can’t have fully licked it yet and will go on to get stronger. Arsenal was the perfect game for our tactics as they are an attacking side with a fairly static back line. The Arsenal defence must have wished they had wing mirrors on their shoulders, the amount of times that Zamora got in around the back of them.
Talking of Zamora, his was one of the hugest contributions on Wednesday night. Fans often say that if they ever got a chance to play for their team, they would run themselves into the ground and his performance was a living embodiment of that claim. Our two centre backs also put in colossal performances, under immense pressure for long periods of the game, though little got through the middle. On the odd occasion that Arsenal did break us down, Shaka was equal to them and deserves the praise he got from fans.
One final word from Wednesday goes to Clive Clarke, thrust into the limelight, for his Premiership debut under the most difficult set of circumstances imaginable. This was only his second game of the season (the other being a Coca Cola cup game against lower league opposition), against one of the big three, in front of one of the biggest crowds he had ever faced and with Yossi Benayoun providing your defensive cover. To top it all off, he is so left footed that if the penultimate verse of the Hokey Cokey was playing, he’d struggle to get his right leg in, and he is playing right back. Under the circumstances, he did a good job, and remember we never lost at Highbury when Clive Clarke played at right back.
Ok, onto the biggest match of the week and my prediction. Firstly, let us get a sense of perspective and concentrate on the game in front of us. I’ve seen some very sensible posts on the forum that state that we need to keep calm, support the team and not be foolhardy enough to expect to walk it. It is a game that we could win, should win and probably will win but we need to play well to do so. I am expecting that the competition for places up front will be a vital impact and that all three strikers could have an impact. I’ll plump for a straightforward 2-0 and be more than happy with that.
Enjoy the game.
Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, nor should be attributed to, KUMB.com.
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