Chris Young column - Be optimistic that Sunderland can avoid the thick of the relegation battle

Jeremain Lens
Jeremain Lens
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The familiarity with relegation battles is so ingrained on Wearside that the fear factor of another nail-biter lingers uncomfortably on the eve of the new campaign.

It’s one of the big challenges facing both Dick Advocaat and the club as a whole.

Sunderland desperately need a season without fretting over relegation, so that the uncomfortable nervy anxiety among supporters, at the Stadium of Light in particular, begins to evaporate.

Having not spent £70million or so on the squad this summer, Sunderland are still likely to be lingering in the bottom half of the Premier League table, yet there is quiet cause for optimism that Advocaat’s side can avoid being in the thick-end of the dogfight.

Just take a look at the differences between the starting XI on the opening day of last season, and the side which is likely to line-up at Leicester City on Saturday.

A year ago, it was: Mannone, Brown, O’Shea, Roberge, van Aanholt, Cattermole, Johnson, Larsson, Rodwell, Wickham, Fletcher

This weekend, it will probably be: Pantilimon, Jones, Kaboul, Coates, van Aanholt, Cattermole, Larsson, Rodwell, Lens, Johnson, Defoe.

Does that look better?

Undoubtedly, and it should be improved further by Yann M’Vila and potentially Adnan Januzaj, if the Black Cats prove to be successful in their bid to take the Manchester United man on loan.

There is a better balance, clear strategy and crucially, more pace, in Sunderland’s side to enjoy a more successful campaign and convert even a fraction of that tiresome tally of draws from last season into victories.

Yes, Advocaat could still do with another striker, with question marks over whether Jermain Defoe can thrive as a lone frontman, even if the two wide players in the 4-3-3 are urged to get in and around him as frequently as possible.

But (a) Sunderland should at least create more chances than the paltry total from last season and (b) there are still more than three weeks of the transfer window remaining.

If Advocaat can sail the Sunderland ship to steadier waters during his year-long deal – even if it is to the modest sanctuary of 12th-13th – and reach 40 points before May, then he will have fulfilled his job specification.

The reality is, of course, that progress is not instant though and Sunderland are likely to again be part of a bottom eight which is unlikely to hold any surprises.

Sunderland, Newcastle, West Brom, Aston Villa, Leicester, Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich all look odds-on to form the components of that group, albeit West Ham are an unknown quantity under Slaven Bilic.

Which of those merit a cheeky pound bet for the drop?

There have to be major question marks over the instability at Watford after they somehow managed to achieve promotion with a conveyor belt of managers and new signings – a pattern which has continued this summer.

Norwich, too, are ominously composed of the vast majority of the side which suffered relegation two seasons ago.

Among the newly-promoted trio, Bournemouth might actually be the underdogs who succeed in their survival bid, with Eddie Howe’s buoyant and energetic side encased in a compact stadium, whose supporters will revel in the novelty of Premier League football.

Of those previously in the top flight, Aston Villa have lost their three best players in Ron Vlaar, Fabian Delph and Christian Benteke, and this will be the real test of the hype surrounding Tim Sherwood.

As Sunderland have discovered previously after offloading the likes of Darren Bent and Jordan Henderson, it’s devilishly difficult to replace such key figures.

When it comes to recruitment, West Brom have made some questionable moves so far this summer, in bringing in the likes of James McClean and £8million James Chester.

So, too, have Saturday’s opponents Leicester, although the strangest decision of all has been to dispense with the services of manager Nigel Pearson after he steered the Foxes to their own Great Escape.

As an individual, Pearson doesn’t induce any sympathy, but it’s difficult to knock his achievements last season, particularly when Leicester have taken an almighty gamble on replacement Claudio Ranieri.

There is an opportunity for Sunderland this weekend against players who will undoubtedly have raised an eyebrow, in private, at the change in the dug-out.

Even if Sunderland can come away with an opening day victory though – a feat they haven’t managed since 2009 – it shouldn’t change perspectives.

Sunderland have to aim for 40 points first and foremost this season. But how refreshing it would be if they could do that sooner rather than later.