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Need for change in luck | Sunderland

Three years can be a long time in football. Just ask Roy Keane. For his former club Sunderland, Saturday represents the Black Cats first opportunity to defeat Fulham in five attempts.

The two clubs have met on four occasions since Kenwyne Jones goal on 27th January 2009 secured victory for Ricky Sbragia’s side at the Stadium of Light. Since then there have been two scoreless draws and two defeats . In fact, Sunderland have gone  four games and an eyebrow raising 423 minutes without scoring against the Cottagers.

Of course, there have been many changes at both clubs since that fixture in 2009. Sbragia managed to steer Sunderland to safety with just two points to spare, whilst Roy Hodgson’s Fulham secured their best ever finish (7th) in the top flight.

Sbragia departed at the end of the campaign, and was succeeded by Steve Bruce, who is yet to win over a sceptical Sunderland public.  Fulham lost Hodgson to Liverpool, replaced him with Mark Hughes, only for Hughes to jump ship last summer, citing a lack of ambition as the reason behind his sudden departure.

Despite the considerable upheaval at management level at Fulham, the playing squad has remained one of the most settled in the league. In fact, if we take a look at Sunderland’s previous victory in this fixture, it is startling to see the differences between the two sides

Sunderland 1 Fulham 0; January 2009

Sunderland: Fulop, Bardsley, Ferdinand, Collins, McCartney, Malbranque, Tainio, Whitehead, Reid, Jones, Cisse.

Fulham: Schwarzer, Painstil, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky, Dempsey, Etutu, Murphy, Davies, Johnson, Zamora

As can be seen above, just one player- Phil Bardsley has survived at Sunderland since that game.  Fulham by contrast have retained nine of the eleven that started that day. In fact, six of those players featured in the sides’ last outing in the 3-1 home defeat to Spurs.

While the expectations at Craven Cottage may not be as exalted, the retention of so many of their squad has allowed successive managers the luxury of being able to finely tweak a squad that has established itself in the premier league. Fulham possess a raft of solid, seasoned pros that are acutely aware of what it takes to survive in the top tier. Fulham fans will be hoping that some of Martin Jol’s summer recruits, namely Brian Ruiz and John Arne Riise can help to propel the side towards mid-table at least.

Unfortunately for Steve Bruce, he is yet to mould a cohesive looking squad during his tenure at The Stadium of Light. It is fair to say that his efforts have been undone by some untimely departures of important personnel, a difficulty not helped by numerous transfer targets refusing to move to the North East.  At this juncture of Bruce’ Sunderland’s career, it  feels as if he has been running merely to stand still. Many Sunderland fans will decry that the team is actually going backwards.

With both teams lying  15th and 16th respectively, results need to improve for both managers- And quickly.  Martin Jol will be given time to establish his own culture at Fulham, but Steve Bruce is now being judged on a game-by- game basis- A precarious predicament for any manager.

So what of this weekend?

Both sides are just a single point above the relegation zone, and will be seeking an upturn in fortunes at The Stadium of Light. A glance at the table below would point to a draw, with both sides having remarkably similar stats.

Sunderland Fulham
Games played 11 11
Points 10 10
Goals scored 14 14
Goals conceded 13 15
Accurate Passes 3,285 4,083
Chances Created 109 136
Chance conversion % 13% 12%

As can be seen above, it would appear the sides are evenly matched.  Both have scored the same number of goals, Sunderland shading it marginally on the defensive record. The biggest contrast is in the accurate passes statistic. Fulham have almost 800 more accurate passes so far, giving credence to Fulham’s reputation as a passing side, an ethos established during Roy Hodgson’s tenure at the club. Sunderland have been more direct in their approach so far, and in effect have been slightly more potent than Fulham, with a chance conversion ratio of 13% to the Cottagers 12%.

For both sets of players, this fixture represents a good chance of three points . Both managers will be anxious to secure victory, Bruce perhaps a little more so. The Sunderland manager will have to secure the victory without the suspended Seb Larsson, who as highlighted here, has been an integral part of Sunderland’s attack thus far .

On a positive note, Bruce welcomes back John O’ Shea-fresh from Euro 2012 qualification with the Republic of Ireland. Wes Brown has been talking up his partnership with Michael Turner this week. But if Sunderland are to provide supporters with renewed optimism, it is at the other end of the pitch that things need things to gel.

With that in mind, the loss of the improving Conor Wickham will come as a blow to the manager, particularly as the youngster was beginning to show signs of why Sunderland took such a large punt on him last summer.

However the loss of Wickham may be offset by the burgeoning Sunderland career of Nicklas Bendtner. Derided by many for what is perceived to be an inflated ego, the Arsenal loanee has had a decisive impact during his short spell at the club. Certainly the side appear to pose a stronger attacking threat when the Dane is in the side as the table below highlights

Sunderland With Bendtner Without Bendtner
Games played 7 4
Goals 11 3
Chances Created 70 39
Wins 2 0
Draw 2 2
Loss 3 2

As many Sunderland fans will already know, Bendtner has provided a spearhead to what was a blunt attack in the opening weeks of the season. In fact, the Dane has been directly involved in 5 of Sunderland’s 14 goals this campaign, scoring two and chipping in with three assists. That equates to exactly 35.7% of Sunderland’s total goals this season. Impressive figures when you consider he has played just 51.2% of Sunderland’s total minutes this campaign.

In Stephane Sessegnon, Bruce has a joker in what can often be a predictable pack. Bruce will need big performances from his attackers this weekend. Victory is long overdue in this fixture, and you suspect the home faithful will accept nothing less come Saturday.

Disparage on Twitter @seanied8

Sean Duffy
Sean Duffy
Writer on all things SAFC for EPL Index.Media liason for Basketball Ireland and staff writer for and The Liberty newspaper-But generally just a slave to football.
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