WBA v Sunderland: Chris Young’s Big Match Verdict

Simon Mignolet
Simon Mignolet
Have your say

FITTINGLY on the weekend when Simon Mignolet will be crowned North East football writers’ Player of the Year, the Belgian gets the chance to exorcise his West Brom demons.

Since the turn of 2012, the Sunderland stopper has barely put a foot wrong.

Perhaps he could have done better for Reading’s winner three weeks ago, although his defence and a softly-conceded free-kick by Titus Bramble were equally to blame.

But Mignolet’s only glaring error since returning to the starting XI on New Year’s Day 2012, came when the Baggies visited the Stadium of Light in November after the 24-year-old gifted Shane Long the most unmissable of opportunities.

While that 4-2 defeat – a fifth loss in six for Sunderland against West Brom – was out-of-character for Mignolet, it was typical of the Black Cats this season.

Inconsistency has blighted Martin O’Neill’s men throughout the campaign, but it has appeared throughout games themselves, rather than just with results.

At times in that televised lunchtime clash with Steve Clarke’s then high-flying side, Sunderland played some excellent stuff, only to be punished when their levels dropped.

Sunderland’s last two Premier League outings have followed a similar pattern – desperately poor for the opening hour against Reading and Arsenal, yet could have won both in the final 20 minutes.

Each game ended in defeat though and the Black Cats now face four upcoming encounters which will define whether the run-in is a nailbiter or a comfortable battle for a top half spot.

If the Wearsiders can register a minimum of six points from meetings with West Brom, Fulham, QPR and Norwich, the sanctuary of survival will be a hair’s breadth away.

If not, they will be sucked back into the mire.

But to maximise their points haul, Sunderland need to produce a vast improvement in their goal threat than they have managed for large parts of the last three games.

The calls for 4-4-2 have been rampant during what has seemed an eternal wait for the Premier League to return.

And interestingly, the absence of injured pair Danny Rose and Lee Cattermole tomorrow reduces the permutations for O’Neill.

Jack Colback is likely to revert to left-back in place of Rose and that leaves O’Neill with a straightforward option.

Either he incorporates Danny Graham alongside Fletcher and brings in Seb Larsson or David Vaughan into central midfield, or he hands starts to the latter pair and maintains the status quo.

Given West Brom’s penchant for five midfielders and their return to winning ways at Liverpool, there has to be a suspicion that Graham will remain among the substitutes. The visit of Fulham seven days later may prove a more auspicious occasion for the £5million striker’s full debut.

Graham has made a significant impact in his two outings from the bench though and must be pushing hard for a start, particularly as Fletcher has been so isolated as a lone striker over the last three games.

West Brom have got their own super-sub pushing for inclusion in the XI, in Romelu Lukaku, to serve as a reminder that it is not just Sunderland’s attack which must be at its peak tomorrow.

Lukaku was dropped to the bench at Anfield and responded with a superb individual stoppage time strike to secure victory.

But for the Baggies’ last Hawthorns encounter, the on-loan Chelsea frontman partnered Long and there must be a suspicion that Clarke will do likewise tomorrow.

With the shrewd James Morrison and Chris Brunt operating behind them, there is plenty to worry a Sunderland back-line that were fortunate to limit Arsenal to one goal a fortnight ago.

Mignolet was partly to thanks for that and after conceding four in his last two meetings with the Baggies, a quieter afternoon tomorrow would surely be a fitting reward for his recognised heroics.

Verdict: Draw