THERE was a further indication of Roy Keane’s determination to push Sunderland’s search for new players into Continental Europe yesterday as the club dispatched a scout to run the rule over Ivelin Popov, the midfielder who scored against Aston Villa in the Uefa Cup.
Despite the transfer window closing almost three weeks ago the Black Cats have already begun to compile dossiers on potential January targets – a category that includes the 20-year-old Bulgarian international.
Popov, who can play as a support striker or on the right of midfield, already has five international caps and was one of Litex Lovech’s better performers as they lost 3-1 to Martin O’Neill’s side yesterday.
He has already been linked with Sunderland’s Premier League rivals Blackburn Rovers and Manchester City, and is regarded as one of his country’s brightest young prospects.
While Sunderland’s interest in Popov is at a preliminary stage, the presence of a Black Cats scout at the game is a further
illustration of their desire to make a breakthrough in the European market.
Keane concentrated his recruitment efforts on players with experience of the English top flight this summer but having spent most of his budget for the season he knows that there is a pressing need to discover players who don’t come with a Premier League premium.
Keane made a tongue-in-cheek comment after the Wigan game about his scouts being in trouble for not alerting him to Wigan’s Egyptian international Amr Zaki, the striker who has been a revelation since arriving in the Premier League. And while the comment was light-hearted in tone there was certainly a kernel of truth in his statement, with Keane seeing a push into the European market as a crucial part of the development of the club.
Sunderland have made only occasional forays abroad since Keane took charge, and Djibril Cissé was the only foreign-based player included in his £40m summer recruitment drive. The disastrous signing of Rade Prica from Aalborg illustrated the need for Sunderland to improve their network in Europe, and it is a point that Keane has pressed home in meetings with Niall Quinn.
Keane has indicated that he will be active when the transfer window opens again for a month in January, although he does not anticipate making more than a couple of additions to his squad. It is more likely that players will be allowed to leave – and with Sheffield Wednesday tracking Carlos Edwards and Plymouth keen on Anthony Stokes there may be movement over the next fortnight. Márton Fülop, who saw a move to a Championship club break down last week because of an injury to Darren Ward, is also angling for an exit.
Meanwhile, Michael Chopra has thanked his manager for his patience after making a welcome scoring return for the Black Cats reserves against Liverpool. After a spell in the Sporting Chance clinic for treatment for gambling and personal problems, the striker is back in contention for tomorrow’s Wear-Tees derby against Middlesbrough. With Cissé, El-Hadji Diouf and Daryl Murphy all ahead of him in the pecking order, Chopra is unlikely to be handed an immediate recall – but he may be among the substitutes.
“I’m playing with a smile on my face again. It’s down to me to work hard now and get my place in the team,” he said.
“I had a week away trying to sort myself out, and I’m pleased the gaffer let me do that. I’m grateful to him. I would love to be involved against Boro, but we will see what the gaffer does because he’s got good options.
“Getting a goal on Wednesday night perhaps gives the manager a headache over who he picks and if he turns to me, I would be delighted.”