Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio will begin his first full season in charge of the Black Cats at home to Fulham on the opening day of the 2013/14 Premier League season. The game will be Saturday at lunchtime, as a host of new names on both sides look set to make their debuts on English soil.
Di Canio’s revolution on Wearside has seen ten new players join his squad, whereas Martin Jol did the majority of his transfer dealings before pre-season even started, however he may look to add one or two more to the seven already recruited before the window shuts.
Both sides look solid on paper and can definitely improve on their league standings from last season in what should be an entertaining game at the Stadium of Light.
Whilst Di Canio continues to overhaul the Sunderland squad he inherited from Martin O’Neill five months ago, Lee Cattermole and Phil Bardsley remain two players the Italian is keen to get rid of, but both have suffered injury setbacks which will see them miss the game against Fulham (Sunderland Echo). Cattermole, 25, recently recovered from a long-term absence but suffered a knock when playing for the Sunderland U21’s against Bolton on Monday, whilst Bardsley, 28, suffered a blow to his right ankle in the same warm-up match.
Di Canio also confirmed this week that Steven Fletcher, who scored 11 Premier League goals last term, is close to returning to action after making significant progress in his recovery from ankle ligament damage.
Fulham will only be without Alex Kacaniklic (hamstring) and Martin Jol could hand debuts to new signings, Maarten Stekelenburg (AS Roma), Fernando Amorebieta (Athletic Bilbao), Derek Boateng (Dnipro), Adel Taarabt (QPR) and Darren Bent (Aston Villa) as the Cottagers bid to start the new era under Shahid Khan’s control with a positive result.
In the last five years, Sunderland have only lost one Premier League opener, which came in the 2008/09 season, and have since picked up three points once (09/10) and drawn the last three consecutively, with three out of the five games being contested away from home.
Fulham are also entering the clash with their last defeat in the first fixture coming in 2008/09 and have since managed to win two and draw two, with the last couple being played at Craven Cottage. In the last two years, however, Fulham have only managed to win seven games on the road.
In this particular fixture, both sides have tended to share the spoils as three of the last five games have ended in draws and Sunderland’s last win against Fulham at home came in the 2008/09 season, whilst the visitors won 3-0 in 2010/11.
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Out of the ten new signings unveiled by the 45-year-old Di Canio this summer, the most exciting coup of the lot is flying winger Emanuele Giaccherini from Serie A side Juventus. The Italy international helped the Bianconeri lift back-to-back league titles under Antonio Conte in 2012 and 2013 and his injection of pace and creativity will ensure Sunderland can rapidly improve last season’s tally of just 41 goals.
Giaccherini, 28, made 17 appearances for Juve last season and scored three goals and made three assists, whilst also impressing for his country in the Confederations Cup tournament during the summer. He loves to hug the left-hand side and drift in onto his trusted right foot, but Giaccherini can also play in a central role and his passing accuracy overall was 87.9% in 2012/13.
On average, he took a shot every 24.8 minutes, made a key pass in a game every 29.4 minutes and for all his flair going forward, the former Cesena man typically made a tackle every 34.9 minutes.
He is extremely hard working and that is a mandatory box needed to be ticked when vying for a place in a Paolo Di Canio side. £6.5m is an absolute steal and the likes of Steven Fletcher, Jozy Altidore and David Moberg Karlsson will greatly profit from the wealth of creativity now at Sunderland, with the likes of Giaccherini, Stéphane Sessègnon and Sebastian Larsson all easily capable of providing the right service for those strikers under Di Canio’s guidance.
Giaccherini will want to make a big impact on his debut and should he be given the nod to start by his new manager, his hunger to quickly impress could see him be the difference in a fixture that has been incredibly tight for the last few years.
When analysing where the goals are going to come from for Fulham however, the man everybody turns to immediately is Dimitar Berbatov. At just £4m, the Bulgarian was unquestionably one of the bargains of the season last year and a return of 15 goals in the Premier League was stunning.
The former Tottenham and Manchester United forward is a great technician on the ball but he is mainly a deadly poacher, as all of his goals last season came from inside the box whilst he was involved in a goal for Fulham every 158.1 minutes.
Martin Jol has been continuously linked with bringing in another striker this summer to help ease the burden of scoring most of the goals on Berbatov’s shoulders, as Fulham’s second top finishers last season were Bryan Ruiz and Mladen Petric, who scored merely five apiece.
Although Darren Bent has been signed to solve that problem, the arrival of Adel Taarabt on a season-long loan from Queens Park Rangers will add more flamboyance to Fulham’s attacks in the final third and the 24-year-old will also be able to help out Berbatov, alongside Bent, with both goals and also assists.
Despite QPR’s relegation to the Championship last season, Taarabt still managed to score five goals and create four assists in a below-par side, whilst claiming a place as one of the most effective creators in the league.
Taarabt created 77 chances, including assists, as QPR finished at the foot of the table and 71% (54) of those chances were created from open play. The Moroccan can often make something from nothing and is indisputably one of the greatest tricksters in the top-flight on his day. He also created a chance on average quicker than Everton left-back Leighton Baines, who conjured up the most throughout the whole season.
Many still feel Taarabt has a point to prove in the Premier League but moving to an established Premier League side where he will get plenty of game time will be a new challenge for him and last season showed that although his shot accuracy (43%) was worse than Berbatov’s (54%). Fulham need somebody else to be more gluttonous in front of goal if they’re to improve this season and both Taarabt and Berbatov will be key men to watch against Sunderland, to see whether they can string up a good partnership going forward.
This game has been a tough one to call over the years but Sunderland have managed to add goals to their side this summer and I think Giaccherini and Altidore, who scored 50 times in all competitions for AZ Alkmaar during his two-year spell with the club, will both have an impact on the final result.
Referee: Neil Swarbrick
Odds via Pinnacle Sports
Sunderland to win = 2.26
Fulham to win = 3.52
Draw = 3.4
Giaccherini Stats via whoscored.com