Sunderland need a central spark

Carlos Cuellar tackles Liverpool's Jordan Henderson.
Carlos Cuellar tackles Liverpool's Jordan Henderson.
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GIVEN A limitless cheque book, there are multiple areas which Martin O’Neill could feasibly address in the January transfer window, writes Chris Young.

But Sunderland are not in that privileged position and a hierarchy must be applied to the immediate requirements for this team.

With David Meyler imminently departing, Lee Cattermole still sidelined and Craig Gardner continuing to plug the gap at right-back, central midfield must take centre-stage in O’Neill’s priorities.

A loan move for Tim Cahill will provide a short-term tonic, yet the arrival of the ageing Aussie is unlikely to be the only recruit in the engine room, with O’Neill looking to add some much-needed muscle to the spine of his side.

But although central midfield will be at the top of O’Neill’s shopping list, a towering and dominant centre-half can’t be far behind.

O’Neill has watched Swedish international Andreas Granqvist in the flesh, been linked with out-of-favour Manchester City centre-half Joleon Lescott, while Anderlecht defender Roland Juhasz was the latest name to be added to the rumour mill last night.

But with John O’Shea succumbing to a hamstring injury, it has made the search for defensive recruitments even more pressing.

O’Shea looks like missing several weeks of action, with O’Neill tellingly commenting last night that he “can’t put a time limit” on the Republic of Ireland international’s recovery.

The situation is aggravated by the question marks continuing to tot up over if and when his former Manchester United team-mate Wes Brown will again be in first-team contention after almost a year on the sidelines.

It left Matt Kilgallon and Titus Bramble vying to partner Carlos Cuellar last night, with O’Neill’s ongoing concerns over the fitness of the latter prompting him to plump for the former Leeds man.

With Kilgallon and Bramble both out of contract at the end of the season and neither likely to be offered a new deal, the situation is far from ideal.

But the Kilgallon-Cuellar double act struggled to establish any solidity at Anfield and that is a worry, if not for Saturday’s trip to Bolton, then definitely for the two vital subsequent Premier League encounters against West Ham and Wigan.

All three of Liverpool’s goals began in their own half and all stemmed from punishing gaping holes in Sunderland’s back-line.

Luis Suarez may have highlighted the ugly side of his game when he descended to the turf as if demolished by a bazooka early on, when Kilgallon gave him a whiff of contact in the early stages.

But the quality of the Uruguayan is unquestionable and neither Kilgallon nor Cuellar could handle the 15-goal Liverpool striker (not a bad return for a player whose finishing was questioned at length during the summer).

Kilgallon was evidently worried by the presence of Suarez and avoided a narrow escape in the 17th minute when he just managed to recover after a loose first-touch under pressure from the Anfield favourite.

But two minutes later, Sunderland’s back-line was lost when Suarez hooked the ball hopefully over the top with his back to goal and Raheem Sterling punished Simon Mignolet’s hesitation.

It was a moment of brilliant ingenuity from Suarez, yet still had a hint of hit and hope about it.

But there was no fortune surrounding Liverpool’s second – a weak Kilgallon header, an indecisive challenge from Cuellar and then a nonchalantly clinical finish from Suarez.

What was particularly frustrating about the lapses for both goals, was that Liverpool were little better at the back.

Brendan Rodgers’ side looked petrified from set pieces and Sunderland created two chances that had to be taken in such surroundings.

Sunderland’s profligacy was their own undoing and after Steven Gerrard’s stunning, raking ball forward exploited the huge gap between Cuellar and Craig Gardner to pick out Suarez, it was game over.

From then on, Sunderland’s defensive resilience, or lack of it, was brutally exposed by Liverpool who could easily have mustered five or six.

With Sunderland offering precious little attacking threat in a jaded second half, Liverpool were virtually able to set up camp.

Suarez consistently got ahead of his marker to win the ball with his back to goal and lay it off first-time before bursting forward.

Stewart Downing and Glen Johnson menaced down the left.

Gerrard, barely under any pressure from Sunderland’s midfield, revelled in the quarter-back role as he hit swashbuckling passes to the flanks.

And then there was ex-Black Cats academy product Jordan Henderson, who looked a different specimen from last season’s confidence-drained youngster, struggling to handle the big price tag.

Rodgers used Henderson in the hole behind Suarez and the Herrington-born midfielder revelled in bursting into the box and supporting his team-mates out wide.

In those closing stages, almost a training ground situation for the hosts, Sunderland rode their luck as fatigue and an acceptance of the scoreline overrode any hopes of an impossible comeback.

Suarez got ahead of Kilgallon to bright substitute Joe Allen’s ball over the top, only for his heavy first touch to roll into the arms of Simon Mignolet.

And then, three minutes later, Kilgallon’s blushes were again spared when his poorly-struck clearance rebounded off Suarez into the path of Allen, whose shot was blocked by a brilliant challenge from Rose.

Perhaps O’Neill may opt to introduce Bramble for Saturday’s trip to Bolton, where Kevin Davies will not trouble the former Newcastle defender with his searing pace.

But long-term, O’Neill needs fresh blood at centre-half and he ideally needs it this month.