The three key areas that will settle Sunderland v Southampton

Virgil van Dijk
Virgil van Dijk
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A home game against an out of sorts Southampton presents a precious chance for Sunderland to continue building momentum. Still, the side that finished sixth last season are capable of lifting their level at the Stadium of Light, so here are three key areas that might settle the game.

1 Exposing Southampton’s soft centre

Jason Denayer

Jason Denayer

The mood on the South Coast is not as bouyant as you might expect given they have just landed a spot in the EFL Cup final, largely because of indifferent league form and a failure to replace Jose Fonte last month.

That has been compounded by a bad injury to Virgil van Dijk, leaving the Saints badly understaffed in defence. Maya Yoshida is likely to play alongside Jack Stephens of Florin Gardos in defence, neither of whom have a great deal of Premier League experience.

If Sunderland can keep them composure on the ball and release Jermain Defoe in the final third, he could using his movement to exploit any uncertainty.

2 Battle of the ball winners in midfield

Sunderland will need Ndong to be at his best

Sunderland will need Ndong to be at his best

Didier Ndong has been superb in his last three Sunderland appearances, a bundle of box-to-box energy and much more composed and accuate in possession.

He will have to go up another level to match Oriol Romeu, who has been second only to N’Golo Kante when it comes to ball-winning midfielders this season. Has earned rave reviews from the cunning Graeme Souness, who knows more about the dark arts of defensive midield than anyone. The Spaniard will dominate if Ndong has an off day.

3 Managing a different threat in defence

Sunderland coped with the threat of Christian Benteke and an aerial bombardment from the wide areas at Selhurst Park impressively last weekend.

Saturday will present a radically different threat, however.

Shane Long, Manolo Gabbiadini and Jay Rodriguez won’t offer a great deal of physicality but are quicker and smarter in their off-the-ball play, and will look to get Sunderland’s defence playing on the turn.

That will present a very different challenge to Lamine Kone and Joleon Lescott, and Jason Denayer’s covering speed could be crucial.