Sunderland Set for Summer of Suspense

Mackems’ Boss Must Get Big Decisions Right

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With money in the kitty, Sunderland fans can expect a flurry of changes at the Stadium of Light this pre-season.

The sale of two of the club’s biggest assets in the past six months gives Steve Bruce at least £40m to spend, not to mention any revenue he generates from shipping out further members of the first team squad.

Sunderland finished a very respectable tenth at the end of last season, usurping local rivals Newcastle to be crowned the North East’s top team. But the alarming slump from February to April, in which they failed to win in 9 games and gained just one point, threatened to derail a promising season with a relegation battle.

Injuries undoubtedly played a large part, and whilst not squarely placing the blame on the shoulders of Bruce, some players were rushed back from injuries too soon and therefore aggravated their problems.

Bruce has never been short of backing from Niall Quinn, and that should continue. The former Manchester United defender is a smart, sensible manager, who has what it takes to lead the club into the dreamland of European football.

Goal Struggle

Goals were hard to come by last season for the Black Cats, especially after the departure of Darren Bent. Discluding the now-Villa forward, only Asamoah Gyan made it to double figures, and barely so with 11 goals. The Ghanaian international will have to hit the ground running this season to justify his £13m price tag.

With Danny Welbeck returning to Old Trafford, and Fraizer Campbell’s injury jinx threatening to curtail his career, Bruce is in need of a hitman to get him goals. Carlton Cole is someone eternally linked with many a Premier League club, including rivals Newcastle, but would be someone similar in mould to Darren Bent. He needs to play Premier League football to prolong his England hopes, and would require no acclimatisation to the pace of the top flight.

Goals win games, and it will probably be that at least two strikers make their way to Wearside before August 14th. Lack of funds will not be an obstruction, so Bruce has everything in his power to bring back the goal-hungry days of Quinn and Phillips.

The midfield engine room will probably need some rejuvenation following Henderson’s departure. Whether Jack Colback can step up to fill that void will be a question Bruce will have answered in pre-season. But Zenden’s advancing years and Malbranque’s unreliability means that the midfield will get some much needed attention in the transfer window.

The decision to make Ahmed El-Muhammadi’s loan move from ENPPI permanent is a smart piece of business, as he provides a reliable option down the right flank and is already familiar with Bruce’s system. An all-action midfielder like Nottingham Forest’s Lewis McGugan would replace the energy and enthusiasm left by Henderson’s sale to Liverpool, and he could easily rotate with Sessegnon alongside Lee Cattermole in the centre of midfield.

Failed to Settle

Gambles last year on the South American pairing of Marcos Angeleri and Cristian Riveros backfired spectacularly, so this may make Bruce more inclined to acquire players who have tasted top flight action. Angeleri made public his belief that his boss didn’t like him, and will probably be the first man out of the exit door. Paraguayan Riveros failed to anchor down a spot in the first team even when injuries struck, and clubs such as Corinthians and Sporting Gijon have been mentioned as potential landing spots.

It would appear Michael Turner and Titus Bramble will begin the season as the centre-back pair of choice, with Anton Ferdinand providing competition, meaning the centre of defence is not such a pressing need. Phil Bardsley was one of the club’s better players last season, with his commitment and tough-tackling making him a fan’s favourite, and sure-fire choice to be the starting right-back.

Left-back remains a gaping void however. Kieran Richardson is not a natural defender, and would be better suited playing further up the pitch on the left flank. Wayne Bridge would be someone who could come in and instantly upgrade the Sunderland back-line. He has been frozen out at Eastlands, and longs to get back into first team football. His wage demands are unlikely to be an issue, for a player simply wanting to be playing regularly on a Saturday again.

The consistency of the goalkeeping position looks set to be solved by the purported arrival of Republic of Ireland international Kieren Westwood. The Coventry stopper’s signing may mean the end of the road for injury-prone Scot Craig Gordon, whose ACL injury last season prompted Simon Mignolet’s ascension to number one keeper. Mignolet impressed following his move from Saint-Truidense, and the Belgian international is likely to compete against Westwood for the number one jersey.

High Hopes

It would seem that Bruce has the perfect managerial recipe laid out before him at the Stadium of Light. A patient and well-versed football chairman, significant financial investment, and a talented team that is only a few tweaks away from being a true Europa League contender.

Much of the responsibility will once again rest at the manager’s door. He accepted blame for the miserable slump towards the end of the season, and will possess extra drive to ensure the Black Cats are consistent throughout the 2011/12 campaign.

But again, it is vital he gets the summer decisions right. The injury nightmare that decimated their previous campaign cannot afford to have a similar effect on the coming season. Even if injuries strike again, Bruce should have replacements ready-made to step in and continue Sunderland’s charge. If anything, last season should have him well prepared for any similar circumstances.

With a squad determined to improve on last season’s finish, and the resources at hand to give the club a boost, the Black Cats could well be purring come May 2012.

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More Stories Ahmed El-Muhammadi asamoah gyan Craig Gordon danny welbeck darren bent Niall Quinn steve bruce Sunderland FC