Big Match Preview: Liverpool audition’s a huge test of Sunderland caretaker Ball’s mettle

Kevin Ball, facing his first Premier League game in charge, in his second caretaker stint, against Liverpool on Sunday.
Kevin Ball, facing his first Premier League game in charge, in his second caretaker stint, against Liverpool on Sunday.
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THERE WAS no shirking the question or answering it so vaguely that it could be misinterpreted. Kevin Ball threw his hit firmly into the ring when asked whether he was a contender to succeed Paolo Di Canio.

“I’d like to be considered,” said the former Sunderland skipper after presiding over Tuesday’s Capital One Cup success against Peterborough.

Given Ball’s character, it would arguably have been more of a surprise if he had calmly stated that the job wasn’t for him.

Taking charge of Sunderland has been Ball’s ambition since beginning his coaching career.

During his previous incarnation as caretaker manager, he was still a novice.

But now, after seven years shaping the club’s academy players, Ball is a far more seasoned coach and, at 48, this may be his best chance of the final and biggest promotion possible at the Stadium of Light.

If Ball is to leap ahead of firm favourite Gus Poyet in the pecking order though, there has to be a sense that he needs the boost of a positive result this weekend.

Beating League One club Peterborough in midweek was encouraging, but facing a side with genuine top-four aspirations is an entirely different scenario.

And despite back-to-back defeats, Liverpool must still be considered as Champions League qualification contenders.

Although the absence of the hugely talented Philippe Coutinho is a blow for Brendan Rodgers, Daniel Sturridge is beginning to prove himself as a dependable scorer, while the flash bulbs will inevitably be centred on Luis Suarez on his Premier League return.

Suarez has netted four in four against Sunderland and can surely prove an effective foil for Sturridge, even if he is asked to operate in a deeper role, as he did in Wednesday’s night League Cup defeat at Manchester United.

Then there are the old boys.

Jordan Henderson has begun to blossom under Rodgers, while Simon Mignolet is the immovable object that kept Sunderland in the Premier League last season.

It’s a daunting task for Ball, particularly given Sunderland’s recent struggles on home soil.

The Black Cats have won just one of their last 10 league encounters at the Stadium of Light and their return of a paltry four victories on Wearside last year was the chief reason for the nail-biting escape from the jaws of the relegation zone.

Tuesday offered hope though and some confidence will surely have been gleaned from a performance which belied players relishing the removal of Di Canio’s shackles.

Given the manner of the display, Ball will be wary of changing his side.

The decision to utilise Emanuele Giaccherini in the hole behind Jozy Altidore paid immediate dividends and, with Steven Fletcher injured and on-loan Fabio Borini ineligible to face his parent club, they should remain together up front.

Arguably, the only decision Ball has is whether to alter the make-up of a defence which secured a first clean sheet of the season on Tuesday.

Modibo Diakite and Ondrej Celustka were left out of the 18 against Peterborough, as Ball opted to use only three of the summer signings in his starting XI.

Sunderland looked far more resilient and organised as a result, perhaps because they had four players well-versed in English football and, on a basic level, the English language.

But Celustka, particularly, has performed well so far, even if replacement Craig Gardner boasts far more Premier League experience.

There is a suspicion though that Ball will stick, rather than twist.

He referred to his selection against Peterborough as his strongest side available.

And in what could effectively be a job audition, little can have changed for a game which both Ball and Sunderland could desperately do with winning.

Verdict: Away win

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