Big match verdict – O’Neill faces Sunderland midfield dilemma

Jack Colback and Craig Gardner
Jack Colback and Craig Gardner
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“MART’S Misery At Awful Collapse” screamed the headline in the Football Echo after Sunderland succumbed to the first drubbing of Martin O’Neill’s tenure.

The Hawthorns was an unlikely location for a rout.

Sunderland’s fixtures under O’Neill had included games against Spurs, Everton, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal – and they had only succumbed to single-goal defeats to three of the five.

Then, on the last weekend of February, they faced a West Brom side without a home win in four months, whose only successes on their own patch had come against Wolves and Bolton.

But the Baggies, buoyed by thumping their arch-rivals 5-0 at Molineux a fortnight earlier, ran riot in one of those one-sided thumpings which could feasibly have reached double figures.

Perhaps at that point, in the midst of a three-game winning streak, there were the first signs of this West Brom side reaching maturity.

Roy Hodgson’s side were dogged by inconsistency over the course of the season, but on that day against Sunderland, there was evidently the genesis of a successful side bubbling away.

Far from eroding those building blocks through inexperience, Steve Clarke has augmented the team both with consistency and a scattering of shrewd acquisitions.

Even by the standards of Chelsea’s baffling decision-making, sending the powerful and pacy Romelu Lukaku out on loan was an odd one, given Fernando Torres was the only orthodox frontman left at Stamford Bridge.

And in midfielder Claudio Yacob, Clarke has unearthed an unheralded gem of the summer transfer window to rival Swansea’s Michu.

Clarke’s tenure may prove to be a flash-in-the-pan and West Brom could well sink down the table over the winter.

But for the purposes of tomorrow, that’s largely irrelevant. Sunderland will face a side bursting with confidence after continually building on the momentum from their fortuitous opening day victory over Liverpool.

The plaudits won’t mask a major blow for the Baggies this weekend, though.

The absence of the injured Youssuf Mulumbu, colossal in February’s 4-0 defeat at the Hawthorns, will be pivotal. The power and drive of the Congolese midfielder has been one of the main factors behind West Brom’s run of results.

Who O’Neill selects to take advantage of that significant gulf will be the most intriguing aspect of the team-sheet tomorrow.

O’Neill was noticeably reluctant to reveal the identity of the “couple” of players suffering knocks.

But if the Sunderland boss has a clean bill of health, he has a choice to make over his first-choice central midfield pairing for the first time this season.

Lee Cattermole will be a certain starter, but the skipper is the only sure-fire member of the central double act.

Craig Gardner, Jack Colback and Seb Larsson have all occupied central roles, but such have been the requirements elsewhere in the side – both at full-back and out wide – they have never been eligible together to compete for the central birth.

Larsson will remain out on the right, leaving Colback and Gardner competing to partner Cattermole after the latter’s return from suspension.

It would be unlike O’Neill to alter a winning team.

But Colback was arguably Sunderland’s poorest performer at Craven Cottage, albeit he was suffering from illness.

Then again, Gardner was anonymous in his one outing alongside Cattermole this season in Sunderland’s last home game against Aston Villa.

It’s a big call by O’Neill, particularly as Sunderland need their central midfielders to create some space for the resurgent forces further forward.

Although West Brom are likely to be more adventurous than Sunderland’s last four opponents on Wearside, Clarke will know from watching those games that the Black Cats have toiled when visiting teams have piled men behind the ball.

The confidence boost from the Fulham win should help, yet Sunderland still need to prove they can control proceedings on their own turf.

Tuesday’s clash with QPR should provide a better opportunity to do that than a particularly challenging encounter tomorrow.

Verdict: Draw