Are Sunderland stronger now than opening day defeat to Manchester City? How seven of the starting XI from that day could change

Stones and Defoe went head to head on the opening day of the season
Stones and Defoe went head to head on the opening day of the season
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An opening day that was at once a brutal reality check and a source of gentle encouragement.

After another summer of upheaval, the squad that finished the previous campaign so well looked threadbare and ill-equipped.

John O'Shea was thrown into a holding midfield role, the very inexperienced Donald Love filling in at right-back.

With that in mind, a narrow defeat, which could have been a point were it not for an unfortunate Paddy McNair own goal, offered encouragement.

That was only the start of the turbulence, though, Sunderland not winning a game until November and the face of the team changing rapidly amid injuries and transfers.

So are the Black Cats stronger now? We take a closer look...

GOALKEEPER

Then: Mannone

Now: Pickford

Mannone came into the season as Moyes' number one following a new contract and a strong end to the season.

He did little wrong but an elbow injury gave Pickford his chance and Sunderland found a matchwinner, alongside Defoe perhaps the only player in the squad capable of turning games and securing points on the strength of his own individual ability.

Looked nervy on his return last weekend but fine saves late in the game offer hope for the weekend. If Sunderland get anything from this game Pickford will have more than likely delivered a vintage performance.

Verdict: An improvement

DEFENCE

Then: Love, Kaboul, Kone, van Aanholt

Now (Likely) : Jones, Kone, O'Shea, Oviedo

Love made an assured debut but was dropped after struggling in his next two games. Billy Jones has been a dependable presence for the most part, inconsistent like the rest of the side but unquestionably first choice.

Jason Denayer has improved both the defence and the midfield but won't be available this weekend against his parent club. If Moyes reverts to a back three then it will likely see Papy Djilobodji return, a centre-half who has found life in the Premier League very tough going.

Oviedo looks to be a safer pair of hands than van Aanholt and Kone is much improved from the player who was all over the place on and off the field, but the leadership and communication of Younes Kaboul is a big miss.

Verdict: Better depth and variety but not necessarily a more dependable back line; Kaboul still not adequately replaced

MIDFIELD

Then: O'Shea, Rodwell, Gooch

Now (Likely): Larsson, Ndong, Gibson

The midfield three of Kirchhoff, Cattermole and M'Vila looked a trio capable of being the engine room of a mid-table Premier League team.

Through injury and transfer controversy it was ripped up and so many of Sunderland's woes this can be traced to this turmoil in this department.

The arrival of Didier Ndong, despite criticism from some supporters, has added much needed energy to the Black Cats midfield and when they have played well, the Gabon man invariably impresses.

Darron Gibson and Seb Larsson add experience but can make the team look leggy.

Verdict: A definite improvement but return to Kirchhoff and Cattermole still crucial to Sunderland's survival hopes

ATTACK

Then: Borini, Watmore, Defoe

Now (Likely): Borini, Januzaj, Defoe

Watmore's running and pace is badly missed in a front line that struggles to stretch defences.

Fabio Borini has scored only once, while Wahbi Khazri's exclusion has continued to frustrate.

Januzaj has had a mixed loan spell, often a peripheral figure but undeniably Sunderland's best chance of finding Jermain Defoe in the areas where he can work his magic.

Victor Anichebe gave Sunderland a real path to safety but his absence is keenly felt.

Verdict: Anichebe, Watmore and Defoe were working well as a trio and offered a big upgrade, but much rests on Adnan Januzaj finding consistency

THE GENERAL PICTURE

Morale has taken a long time to lift, and there still remains a great deal of apathy as Sunderland fight the drop again.

Ultimately the starting XI on Sunday will be an improvement on that which opened the season, Sunderland recruiting in reasonable numbers in the last month of the summer window and in January.

Whether those recruits have the quality to get a positive result remains to be seen, but that they are still not adrift is something to hold on to.

When John O'Shea found himself as the midfield screen at the Etihad, many understandably would have wondered if that were possible.