West Ham v Sunderland – Big match verdict

Lee Cattermole and Steven Fletcher

Lee Cattermole and Steven Fletcher

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A DISCONSOLATE West Ham side provided solace for Steve Bruce on Sunderland’s last visit to Upton Park.

The final day of the 2010-11 campaign ensured Bruce saved some face for Sunderland’s second half of the season slump by securing the three points necessary for a first top half finish in a decade.

On the day, West Ham were a wretched spectacle.

Hapless manager Avram Grant had been relieved of his duties days earlier, yet the already-relegated side were awash with recklessly-paid players who showed little heart for the club’s plight. They even let Cristian Riveros score.

But 17 months later, West Ham are anything but a soft touch on their return to the Premier League.

Sam Allardyce has followed his familiar pattern of recruiting anything over 6ft and that will surely see the Hammers safely nestled in mid-table come next May.

Although Allardyce’s star giant Andy Carroll finds himself on the treatment table tomorrow with a hamstring strain, they are not short on power nor strategy.

Seven points are already on the board and, more tellingly, three clean sheets.

For a Sunderland side who have coped well with the possession love-in favoured by Arsenal and Swansea, this offers a very different test, yet one which is arguably just as formidable.

Sunderland are not awash with power in their side and must show the necessary tenacity to compete with the Hammers’ brute force, particularly from corners and set-pieces.

But Martin O’Neill’s men are no shrinking violets. They showed with victory at Stoke City last February that they have the mettle when it comes to tackling the route one approach.

The loss of Carlos Cuellar is a blow though. The Spaniard has hit the ground running at the Stadium of Light, forming an immediately effective double-act alongside John O’Shea.

The pair may not be the quickest centre-halves in the Premier League, yet they are ready-made for O’Neill’s strategy of sitting deep, soaking up pressure and hitting teams on the counter-attack.

Titus Bramble is almost certain to replace Cuellar despite producing the inadvertent ricochet for Luis Suarez’s leveller last weekend.

Hamstring strains usually take a couple of weeks minimum to heal themselves, presenting Bramble with the chance to stake his claim before the next international break.

But it is not just the centre-halves that will need to be on their guard from West Ham’s bombardment. While Carlton Cole presents an obvious battering ram, it is the savvy Kevin Nolan – who has hurt Sunderland so devastatingly in the past – that provides a major task for Sunderland’s central midfielders.

Already this season, the 30-year-old has proved himself still more than capable of offering a threat with late bursts into the box and Lee Cattermole and Jack Colback must keep a watchful eye on the 30-year-old.

Adam Johnson is the other major injury concern and O’Neill will be desperate to harness the England winger’s threat on the counter-attack, even though he was largely redundant on his sole league outing for Sunderland at Swansea.

Sunderland missed Johnson’s threat against Liverpool last weekend, particularly with James McClean and Stephane Sessegnon struggling, and he is a key ingredient in the quest to provide sufficient ammunition for Steven Fletcher to continue his scoring streak.

Considering West Ham’s rigorously well-drilled defensive alignment over the opening of their campaign, it makes it doubly important that Sunderland can offer more of a threat on the break.

Do not expect this to be a 4-4 thriller though. Chances will be at a premium. Here are two managers who are firm advocates in the value of mastering a team shape.

Sunderland have not been able to separate themselves from the opposition so far this season and yet another Premier League draw looks the most feasible scenario again tomorrow.

Verdict: Draw