Chris Young’s big-match verdict: O’Neill faces up to bold choice for City challenge

GOAL ... Steven Fletcher celebrates with team-mates Adam Johnson (left) and James McClean (right) after scoring against Wigan Athletic.
GOAL ... Steven Fletcher celebrates with team-mates Adam Johnson (left) and James McClean (right) after scoring against Wigan Athletic.
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TWO UNBEATEN records, yet two attacks that have failed to sparkle.

For all Sunderland and Manchester City have enjoyed respectable starts to the campaign, tomorrow’s encounter at the Etihad pits together two sides who are still to given a genuine account of their offensive potential.

Five goals in five games for Sunderland belies the Wearsiders’ riches going forward, particularly as all of those have come from the boot of Steven Fletcher.

But the dilemma for Martin O’Neill is whether he can deploy Fletcher alongside all of his creative trio for the stern challenge of a trip to last season’s Premier League champions.

Although Sunderland have been solid defensively so far, their only excursion to one of the big boys came before the double acquisition of Fletcher and Adam Johnson.

Pitting Fletcher, Johnson, Stephane Sessegnon and James McClean all in the same starting XI would be a bold move at the Etihad, particularly as so many other top-flight sides will flood the midfield against Roberto Mancini’s men.

Although Sessegnon can drop deeper to join the central midfield duo, Sunderland are still effectively playing a front four with a 4-2-3-1 formation.

But O’Neill may decide attack is the best form of defence against City at the moment.

City again looked brittle at the back in their fortuitous Champions League draw against Borussia Dortmund in midweek, with keeper Joe Hart more responsible for limiting the Germans to one goal than any defensive masterplan from Mancini.

The champions are yet to keep a clean sheet this season and there was a further reminder of the reasons behind that statistic on Wednesday night.

Admittedly, City will inevitably make changes to their defensive numbers tomorrow as Mancini rotates his squad, with the likes of Joleon Lescott, Maicon and Aleksandar Kolarov all in contention to start against the Black Cats.

But with Johnson eager to make a point against his former employers and Sessegnon finally beginning to show signs of last season’s form, O’Neill will attempt to mimic March’s trip to the Etihad and put City on the back foot defensively.

Should that front four remain in the place though, it puts a significant burden on the midfield two, particularly if Yaya Toure avoids the cull in Mancini’s tinkering.

Sunderland struggled to control proceedings in the engine room against Wigan last weekend and, without the suspended Lee Cattermole, they must contain Toure, otherwise the Ivorian will dominate.

The likeliest scenario is Jack Colback and Seb Larsson remaining in central midfield, although O’Neill could be tempted by David Meyler, with the Ireland international at least capable of matching Toure physically.

At the back, fit-again Carlos Cuellar could replace Titus Bramble, despite the former Newcastle centre-half’s impressive displays against West Ham and Wigan.

Cuellar and John O’Shea is clearly O’Neill’s preferred central defensive partnership and with the Spaniard showing such composure in the backs-to-the-wall rearguard action at Arsenal, that is a quality which will be needed again tomorrow.

The identity of the frontmen Sunderland’s back four will be marking will remain shrouded in mystery until midday tomorrow, although it’s likely that at least one of Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli will start after both were benched against Dortmund.

It’s that array of striking options which has been able to see City navigate unbeaten through their opening six games.

Although City have not reached anywhere near top gear, they still boast attackers capable of nicking a winner – as Edin Dzeko proved when he came off the bench at Fulham last weekend.

That is the likeliest scenario tomorrow, even though Sunderland proved to be City’s bogey team last season.

It won’t be another 3-3 classic. This will be a tight and cagey encounter with both teams struggling for attacking fluency, yet one which City are likely to narrowly edge.

Verdict: Home win