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Inside FutbolInside Futbol

England

Sunderland Surge Makes Europe Realistic Goal




Sunderland have seen their fair share of false dawns in the past decade. From the bright start to Premier League life under Peter Reid in 2000 to the surge of optimism during the Roy Keane era, the Black Cats have been in promising positions before, but have come to realise that performances can quickly take a turn for the worse.

But Steve Bruce’s current crop have raised spirits again and, with an abundance of young talent, the hope is that Sunderland are really poised take that next step.

Last season, a seemingly well-balanced Black Cats squad never found a level of consistency. The defence leaked goals, Craig Gordon looked suspect between the sticks and Darren Bent received neither the support nor the service to hurt opposition defences.

Fast forward to this season and Bruce and his players have made the necessary adjustments. Despite having to chop and change the back four, they have already managed nine clean sheets, which is two more than the whole of the 2009/10 campaign. Gordon has grown in confidence, excelling against Bolton a week ago with the save of the season so far to deny Zat Knight. His greater authority this year has been contagious for the back four.

 

However, it is going forward that Sunderland have made the biggest advances. And much of the credit must go to the trio of Asamoah Gyan, Jordan Henderson and Danny Welbeck. A record of 21 goals in 19 games does not do justice to how much more dangerous Bruce’s men have been.

Gyan’s performances at the World Cup with Ghana caught the eye and it was a surprise that none of Europe’s bigger clubs gambled on his potential. Instead, Sunderland pounced to sign the all-action striker from French club Rennes for £13M and the striker’s movement and work-rate have made him an instant fan favourite. Gyan’s partnership with Bent gives Sunderland a cutting edge they lacked last season.

Henderson’s deserved call-up to the England squad for the friendly against France was another indication of Sunderland’s progress in this current campaign. He has blossomed in midfield, possessing a fine range of passing and capable of making perfectly-timed runs. It was Keane who gave Henderson his first team chance and the youngster clearly profited from working with the former Manchester United captain.

Welbeck, the final piece in Sunderland’s attacking quartet, is only on-loan from United, but he has made a big impact since arriving at the Stadium of Light. With five goals, the 20-year-old has taken pressure off Bent and Gyan and reminded fans why Sir Alex Ferguson predicted such big things for him.

The team’s progress has been a joy to watch and the stunning 3-0 victory against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in mid November was the day that all the Black Cats’ quality came together and fans saw the true potential of Bruce’s side. The former Wigan boss’s team play with passion – led by Henderson and tough-tackling midfielder Lee Cattermole – but combine that with real counter-attacking threats.

And so, suddenly, reaching Europe is the goal being mentioned for Sunderland this season. But it will be no easy feat, given that there are plenty of good teams this year. The elite sides are a little weaker, but the competition in the Premier League is fiercer than ever. The top four are in it for the long haul, with Tottenham Hotspur just behind, and then the likes of Bolton Wanderers and Liverpool have high hopes of climbing the table. However, on current form, there is no reason why Sunderland cannot finish in the top six. A disappointing effort at Old Trafford against Manchester United on Boxing Day should take nothing away from the Black Cats’ credentials.

The concern for Bruce is that there is an increasing sense that Sunderland must make progress quickly if they are to keep their squad intact. Just as Bolton are fighting to hold on to Gary Cahill and Johan Elmander, it is not hard to imagine Sunderland receiving offers for Henderson, Bent and Gyan. It has happened all too often in the past – and the top teams will be keeping a close eye on the state of play at the Stadium of Light.

The next two weeks will test Sunderland’s resolve, but if they can emerge from that unscathed, there is no team better equipped to grab sixth place.