On Sunday, Sunderland pay a visit to Stamford Bridge with everything to play for both sides. For Chelsea, Arsenal’s victory over West Bromwich Albion means that the Gunners are now one point above the Blues for fourth place, so three points will be required to return to the top four with place determined by other events. For Sunderland, Aston Villa’s win over Stoke means that the base line for the relegation battle could be lifted as high as 33 points if Wigan beat QPR, and with themselves on just 31, they will find themselves in the drop zone.
Sunderland have also had to deal with the fallout of the sacking of Martin O’Neill and the subsequent appointment of new manager Paulo Di Canio, formerly of Swindon Town. With all the off-field baggage that comes with Di Canio, one does wonder that appointment was made. However, it also has gotten attentions turned away from the fact that the Black Cats are missing two of their most influential players, Steven Fletcher and Lee Cattermole, for the season.
Chelsea get a chance to stay home, having hosted and beaten Rubin Kazan 3-1 in the Europa League on Thursday and will be looking to improve on the woeful league performance against Southampton. This will be the third match in just six days for the Blues, and the physical toll is mounting. Both Gary Cahill and Ashley Cole are out, with Oriol Romeu still remaining the only long-term injury.
What exactly does Paulo Di Canio bring as a manager that prompted the sacking of O’Neill?
It’s an interesting question because I didn’t think O’Neill was doing that badly. I thought his side were much the better team against Manchester United last week, but failed to produce the final ball and clinical finish. That is to be expected when you are missing your leading goal scorer, but these aren’t necessarily things a manager can control.
Enter Di Canio who has Swindon in the playoff places in League One, but also left the club amidst a wave of controversy that seems to follow him wherever he goes. Perhaps the belief is that the self-belief and borderline arrogance of Di Canio will instill a belief amongst a side that just might need that kick up the backside and he may also be able to find a way to get the squad playing to their potential. But to make such a drastic change in managers this late in the season could backfire spectacularly or make you a hero. It’s one or the other.
So why was the change made now?
After the Aston Villa result today, it seems pretty clear that Sunderland were hoping that the new manager bounce could carry them through the next two matches. I think the overwhelming belief is that if this sparks the team to four in matches against Chelsea and Newcastle in the derby next week, then that could give them enough cushion to stay up. However, if they don’t play well against us, and that could very well happen, all the pressure will be on next week going into a Tyne-Wear derby with relegation six-pointer written all over it.
Di Canio’s first job: find the leadership on the pitch.
One of the big things is that Di Canio will rue the absence of will be Sunderland’s two most influential players this season, club captain Lee Cattermole and leading scorer Steven Fletcher. Fletcher’s 11 goals leads the team this year, and in a side that hasn’t scored a lot of goals this season, his absence was felt last week when United gave them opportunities, but no one found the opposition’s net.
Cattermole might be an even bigger loss, if only because he fits the mould of the type of player that Di Canio likes: committed, all-action, and with a bit of skill. Despite the fact that he, at times, is a walking red card, Cattermole is very good midfielder in terms of his ability to distribute the ball and win it back forcefully. The biggest miss is that his personality does drive the team forward, and that ability to steer the ship will be something that Di Canio’s going to have to find from somewhere if he expects to keep them up.
Sunderland need to find goals, so why not try Connor Wickham?
It is a mystery to me, and perhaps, Di Canio will figure this out. In a side missing goals, it’s baffling as to why they don’t give Wickham more of a chance. In U-21 internationals this season, he boasts an impressive 4 goals from 6 matches, and Danny Graham, the man bought to be the backup to Fletcher, can’t boast that record. The other thing is that Danny Graham, for me, isn’t really the right fit for Sunderland. I thought he was very good at Swansea, but largely because the passing rhythms and the playing through the center suited a quick striker. With Sunderland, and especially with Fletcher, you ask more of your centre forward in terms of hold-up play and the ability to be a target, which isn’t really Graham’s game.
If that’s the case, why not give Wickham the chance since he’s shown at Ipswich and at U-21 level that he may be closer to the skill set that Fletcher possesses than Graham is, especially when your main problem is goals? We’ll find out if Di Canio thinks the same way.
What side will Rafa put out?
This will always be the question, and I think it’s the thing that annoyed me the most about Benitez from his time at Liverpool. There are many times that he prioritises the cup competitions over the league and, in rotating the squad, drops points in the league that he shouldn’t.
I’ll give him a slight pass in the Southampton match because he was in the unenviable position of having to play two matches in 45 hours and the squad had to be almost completely rotated. However, he cannot afford any more of those kinds of blips in the league because you cannot rely on the teams above you to drop points.
He will have to manage the games and rotate the squad, but it’s also his responsibility to make sure that the players he selects are ready to play. Against Southampton, I’m not sure that was the case with one or two.