IT TOOK a visit from Bolton Wanderers to drag Sunderland out of a season-defining slump last term. Steve Bruce is hopeful another victory over one of his lucky teams can help establish the Black Cats as European contenders.
Sunderland’s manager is wary of talking up expectations after a 14-match winless run in last season’s Premier League only ended by a 4-0 victory over the Trotters. But if Sunderland can maintain seventh place over the next six weeks, Bruce will accept European qualification is a serious possibility.
He will, though, have to contend with another defensive reshuffle today after Anton Ferdinand was ruled out of the game for a second time yesterday. The Black Cats had originally written off the chances of the centre-back facing Bolton, but when his hamstring injury was found to be less severe than first thought, hopes were raised that he might figure after all, only to be dashed at training yesterday.
Asamoah Gyan is set to figure on the weekend he finds out if he is Africa’s footballer of the year.
“Whether we can make a push for Europe, the next six weeks will tell us,” Bruce conceded. “January usually sorts out where we will be. These four games are a huge part, can we get in the top ten and compete for Europe? Why not?”
Bruce has fond memories of Sunderland v Bolton clashes. He started his new job with an opening-day win at the Reebok Stadium, one of the few away victories he has recorded at the club. Both teams have improved greatly since March’s desperately-needed 4-0 win, and have enjoyed excellent starts to this campaign. “It got us out of the rut and up and running again,” Bruce said of the March meeting. “But they have improved since then in the way they are playing and they will be a handful.”
Ferdinand’s injury is likely to mean Ahmed Elmohamady starting a Sunderland match at right-back for the first time. All the Black Cats’ specialist right-backs have escaped the injuries ravaging the centre-halves.
But Phil Bardsley has impressed on the left, Argentinean Marcos Angeleri is yet to convince Bruce he is ready for English football – leading him to be linked with a January return to Estudiantes – and Nedum Onuoha will move inside to partner John Mensah. Mensah’s Ghana team-mate is on a three-man shortlist for Africa’s player of the year award.
Chelsea’s Didier Drogba is favourite to regain the award he claimed in 2006 and 2009, while European Cup-winning striker Samuel Eto’o is the other contender.
Sunderland’s £13m record signing has been rewarded for an eye-catching World Cup which also saw him recognised as one of 23 candidates for the global equivalent, the Ballon D’Or. Having a player in such prestigious company is an honour for the Black Cats. “It’s fantastic for him,” said Bruce of the player yesterday named the BBC’s African Footballer of the Year.
“He is different although he will drive me nuts at times.
“He is flying out to Egypt. I hope to see him back in the next week, fingers crossed! It’s great for the club.”
Meanwhile, two academy derbies have been postponed because of frozen pitches.
Sunderland’s under-16s and under-18s were both due to face Newcastle United at Benton in the league today, but both games have fallen foul of the weather.