Sunderland v Chelsea: Focus on strikers

Connor Wickham.
Connor Wickham.
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Chris Young’s Big Match verdict

ON A LESSER-spotted Saturday without a televised top flight fixture, the glint of the camera lens will focus on the fortunes of the frontmen at the Stadium of Light tomorrow.

The cynical on Wearside will predict an inevitable end to Fernando Torres’s two-month Premier League goal drought after the struggling Spaniard netted a brace for Chelsea in midweek.

And perhaps that will be the spark Torres needs to start repaying Roman’s roubles, even if the 28-year-old never returns to the form which saw him emerge as arguably the world’s most potent predator during his Liverpool years.

It would be surprising though.

Both Torres’s dreadful body language and his minimal movement bear the hallmarks of a desperately unhappy figure and few will be shocked if he returns to the periphery on Wearside this weekend, while his team-mates carry the burden of securing a first league victory under Rafa Benitez.

The impact and composition of Sunderland’s front-line is far more unpredictable.

Sunderland will make a late decision on Steven Fletcher’s fitness, although Tuesday’s clash with Reading may prove to be a more feasible option for the former Wolves man.

Connor Wickham will wait with bated breath on Fletcher’s fitness, with the 19-year-old in line for a first league start in almost a year if the Scotland international is ruled out.

But even if Fletcher does recover, is there a case for Wickham partnering the £12million summer signing?

Certainly, Wickham made an impact at Carrow Road last weekend and is clearly maturing technically and physically since beginning work with Sunderland skills coach Steve Guppy.

Had back-to-back home games been reversed and Sunderland were facing Reading tomorrow, then a partnership of Wickham and Fletcher would have gone from possible to probable.

But facing Chelsea – despite the Blues enduring a seven-game winless run in the Premier League – is a different proposition, and it would be uncharacteristic and perhaps recklessly gung-ho of Martin O’Neill to play two genuine strikers against one of the division’s heavyweights.

O’Neill’s focus has to centre around stopping Chelsea’s array of midfield tricksters.

Chelsea’s goal threat will be boosted if Frank Lampard returns from a two-month injury lay-off, but it is the quick feet of Juan Mata, Victor Moses, Oscar and Eden Hazard which are the key cogs in this side, particularly with Torres misfiring.

A glance at the DVD of West Ham’s victory over Benitez’s side shows the best way to contain them – a high-tempo physical approach, where there is sufficient threat inside the Chelsea box to force their flare players backwards.

That was what Sunderland did in the second half at Norwich too – pressing the Canaries back and getting numbers forward.

But it was far from what they did in the first half at Norwich.

If Sunderland reproduce the meek and confidence-drained display from the opening 45 minutes at Carrow Road and replicate the ploy of backing off their opponents, they will be swatted aside tomorrow and the drop worries will only deepen.

But then that inconsistency has plagued Sunderland all season and there remains a roulette-wheel element to their performance tomorrow, in front of a crowd who have seen just one league victory in almost nine months.

If – and it’s a big if – Sunderland can register anything tomorrow, then it will provide a crucially-timed tonic ahead of the Reading game where the stakes are huge.

But the jitters have gradually developed at the Stadium of Light thanks to Sunderland’s dreary home form and O’Neill’s side must conquer those, as well as a Chelsea side looking to stop the rot.

Given recent performances on Wearside, it is difficult to see Sunderland achieving that objective and the steam clouds from the pressure cooker will only grow denser ahead of the meeting with second-bottom Reading.

Verdict: Away win