Big match verdict: Testing debut ahead for Ki as Sunderland host revived Arsenal

Valentin Roberge looks likely to win a recall in central defence tomorrow
Valentin Roberge looks likely to win a recall in central defence tomorrow
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TEN games into his Sunderland reign and Paolo Di Canio is yet to name an unchanged side.

Circumstances have largely dictated that – injuries, suspensions, off-field indiscipline and a squad now peppered with new signings – but the tinkering won’t stop tomorrow.

Di Canio made two changes at Southampton, was forced into three for the following Premier League encounter at Crystal Palace and is likely to reach four for this weekend’s visit of Arsenal.

With John O’Shea suspended, both frontmen toiling at Selhurst Park and the much-sought midfield playmaker now at his disposal, four looks to be a minimum requirement.

Such instability in the side is far from beneficial and it is not as if Sunderland are crippled by a fixture pile-up which makes squad rotation imperative.

But perhaps it was inevitable that, with so many new signings, it would take Di Canio several weeks to land upon a combination that clicks.

The loss of O’Shea is far from ideal, though, for the visit of an Arsenal side who will be hungry to showcase the abilities of £42million capture of Mesut Ozil.

O’Shea has his critics and the Sunderland skipper had a couple of narrow escapes at Palace before he was unforgivably culpable for the game’s defining moment.

But the 32-year-old is the organising presence in Sunderland’s defence and that cannot be overlooked when the back-line has been so radically overhauled.

Valentin Roberge looks the favourite to take O’Shea’s spot in the XI and partner fellow Bosman arrival Modibo Diakite.

While Roberge’s error against Fulham on the opening day sparked this growing tide of uncertainty surrounding Di Canio’s “revolution”, the former Maritimo man is a mobile defender and that cannot be overlooked when it comes to harnessing Ozil, Olivier Giroud, Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott – providing the latter shakes off the ankle knock which forced him off on England duty.

Ideally, a fully-fit Wes Brown would surely be Di Canio’s first-choice to replace O’Shea, but the there is a self-evident answer as to why that is unlikely.

And while Carlos Cuellar is the most experienced option available to the Sunderland boss, the Spaniard appears to be bottom of the pecking order this season.

O’Shea’s replacement will represent the first rung in altering the spine of Sunderland’s side.

Ki Sung-Yeung will surely be introduced into the middle of the park – probably at the expense of David Vaughan – after that has so clearly been Sunderland’s weak area in the Premier League’s early exchanges.

Much rides on the South Korean this season after being selected as the viable alternative to Tom Huddlestone in the middle of the park.

Ki’s signing has perhaps been an underwhelming one, given he had dropped to fifth choice at Swansea.

But the 24-year-old does not lack ability, as evidence by his stint at Celtic, and Sunderland have been craving someone who can pick a pass in the engine room.

There will be changes up front too, with neither Ji Dong-won or Connor Wickham expected to keep their places in the side.

Jozy Altidore will surely return after missing the Palace game with a minor hamstring complaint which did not prevent him featuring for the USA last week.

But will Altidore be partnered by anyone in attack?

Neither Martin O’Neill nor Steve Bruce favoured playing an orthodox 4-4-2 against Arsenal.

They both believed an extra man in midfield was needed to counter the Gunners’ slick approach play.

Given that Arsene Wenger can now call upon Ozil to add to that array of talent in the middle of the park, Sunderland cannot afford to let Arsenal knock at an open door.

But Di Canio believes in the merits of two frontmen and is unlikely to shelve his principles tomorrow.

And considering how O’Neill’s Sunderland were ferociously pegged back in their own half with a five-man midfield when Arsenal visited Wearside last February, the Black Cats must test the frailties in the Gunners’ defence.

Whether Steven Fletcher or loan arrival Fabio Borini will partner Altidore, may largely come down to fitness.

But while it would be a risk to play two up top, if Sunderland can at least show some ambition or attacking harmony, it may help to alleviate the nerves which have gathered at such a tender stage of the campaign.

Verdict: Away win

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