The Opposition View - Sunderland
With great thanks to our friends over at Vital Sunderland, we ask a few questions ahead of our encounter on Saturday. Tom speaks out the Black Cats recent resurgence, their likely team and shape for Saturday and his prediction for the game.
----------------------------------------------------------1) You looked in some danger a few months back after a poor run of results. However, you stick with Martin O`Neill and were you always confident he was going to turn it round?
A tough question to be honest. I spoke to several Villa fans at the height of our ineptitude earlier in the season and they all said roughly the same thing - that we'd get out of that rut and then go on a good run. It seems that we've now hit that good run.
That said, we were playing with such little confidence and offering so little going forward that it was hard to believe we would come out the other side of that run. I was telling anyone who'd listen earlier in the season that we could easily be dragged into the mire this season. Happily they look to have proved me wrong!2) Who are the player/s in form ahead of Saturday's game?
Steven Fletcher is, as always, a threat. A couple of beautifully taken goals at Wigan last weekend took him up to 10 for the season - he's quickly looking like very good business at £12m - especially if he's the difference between staying up or going down.
New-boy Alfred N'Diaye has only made the one appearance - again at Wigan - but impressed and looks like he could quickly establish himself as an important component in the centre of midfield.
At the back, Simon Mignolet has had a superb season and has been crown the North East Sports Writer's 'Player of the Year' for 2012 - a richly-deserved accolade. He's kept us in games on plenty of occasions this term.3) Do you think a relegation battle is still possible?
Going back to my first answer, it's very much swings and roundabouts under O'Neill. We're enjoying a peak at the moment, but you get the impression that a couple of poor results and the confidence will seep out of the squad and we'll quickly end up back in a trough. Hopefully I'm wrong, but I'm not sure there's the mental resilience in the squad to keep plugging away during a poor patch of form.4) What are your strengths and weaknesses as a team that you have noticed over the past couple of games?
One of our biggest strengths is that we are hard to beat. Mignolet as previously mentioned is an excellent goalkeeper, and broadly-speaking we've been hard to break down and quite solid at the back - a good basis upon which to build.
However the big issue is that if Fletcher doesn't score, there are few players around him that have been weighing in with goals. The likes of Seb Larsson, Adam Johnson and Stephane Sessegnon have been short of form this season but are all coming back into form now. The same cannot be said of James McClean, who has really struggled to hit the high standards he set last term.5) Have you been satisfied with Sunderland`s January Transfer window dealings?
Yes. We needed defensive re-enforcements - Matt Kilgallon is not a Premier League player, Titus Bramble is oft-injured and Wes Brown perma-injured, though a good centre-half. Phil Bardsley - probably not a footballer to be fair.
Kader Mangane has arrived to bolster our options at centre-half and N'Diaye brings a physical presence to the centre of midfield which we've lacked for a while now. I still think we could do with another full-back or two - loanee Danny Rose is the only natural left-back and Bardsley the only natural right-back.
Up front Fletcher has of course excelled, but Louis Saha is to depart, Ryan Noble looks likely to head out on-loan again, Fraizer Campbell has left and Connor Wickham is only young. Somebody needs to help relieve some of the goalscoring burden placed on Fletcher and fingers-crossed, that man is Danny Graham.6) What Reading player do you rate the most and why?
In recent weeks, Adam Le Fondre. His was a name I was always aware of in the Football League, and although he was far from a regular last season, he always seemed to weigh in with important goals when needed. He seems to have continued that knack next season. He's exactly what we need, a poacher; a reliable finisher - not necessarily an all-round footballer. 7) Who do you reckon will start and what sort of shape will you have?
We play 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1. Assuming our injury situation stays the same we will line-up: Mignolet; Gardner, O'Shea (c), Bramble, Colback; Larsson, N'Diaye, Vaughan, Johnson; Sessegnon; Fletcher.8) What's your prediction for the game?
A few weeks back I would have said a Sunderland victory. In light of your recent form, I'd say this will be a very tight game - 3-2 to Sunderland!