A chance to pull away from the Premier League relegation zone is up for grabs at the Stadium of Light on Saturday as season travellers Fulham make the long trip up to the North East to face a much improved Sunderland side. The Black Cat’s have endured a difficult start to the season once again finding themselves in the shadow of fierce rivals Newcastle with early performances seeing supporters calling for manager Steve Bruce’s head. Those negative noises quickly died down after their win against Bolton last month and some encouraging performances in defeats away to Arsenal and Manchester United. Their last five game have brought a meagre total of five points from a possible 15 but it’s the much improved displays that have given fans hope of moving away from the dreaded drop zone after a slow start to the campaign. Bruce’s legion of summer signings have taken their time to gel but there is evidence that they are finally starting to strike a chord with one another. Stephane Sessegnon and Nicklas Bendtner have looked dangerous up front with the on-loan Arsenal man giving the Wearsiders something different in the final third. Despite only scoring twice since his move to the Stadium of Light the Danish international looks to be playing without pressure on his shoulders and his displays have enlightened the Sunderland fans. Fellow summer buys Sebastian Larsson and John O’Shea have struck up a promising partnership on the right whilst Kieron Westwood staked his claim for the number one jersey with an accomplished performance at Old Trafford before the international break. However one win in five home games is poor and they need to start winning on their own soil if they are to start climbing towards the top half. Fulham’s league campaign has panned out in a similar manner to the North East side’s although their involvement in the Europa League has impacted severely on their domestic form. Martin Jol has suffered a difficult first few months in charge at Craven Cottage with the Dutchman unable to get his side to replicate their performances in Europe in the Premier League. Saturday’s game will be their 25th in all competitions after starting on the 30th of June and it’s no surprise that a number of players are starting to look jaded in such a small squad. The manner in which they demolished QPR at the start of October looked to be a turning point in the Cottagers season but in the four games since then they have lost three and won one away at rock bottom Wigan. Their form on the continent has been much stronger with seven wins in 12 games and Jol needs to find a way of getting his side to start winning league games with only two top flight victories all season. Bobby Zamora continues to lead the line on the Thames whilst the recent displays of Moussa Dembele have been promising. Fulham will need both to be on their game if they are to start finding the net away from home with only three goals scored on their travels. However they will be confident of taking something away from the North East after beating Sunderland 3-0 in April.
Sunderland – 15th
Lost 1-0 v Manchester United (A), Drew 2-2 v Aston Villa (H), Won 2-0 v Bolton (A), Lost 2-1 v Arsenal (A), Drew 2-2 v West Brom (H)
Potential Starting X11
24. K. Westwood 16. J. O’Shea [C] 4. M. Turner 6. W. Brown 2. P. Bardsley 27. A. Elmohamady 6. L. Cattermole 16. J. Colback 11. K. Richardson 28. S. Sessegnon 52. N. Bendtner
Simon Mignolet is the only fresh injury concern for Bruce after the keeper sustained a broken nose in the 2-2 draw against Aston Villa. Apart from that long-term victim Fraizer Campbell is the only other player inhabiting the treatment room whilst Connor Wickham is definitely out after injuring his knee at Manchester United.
Key Player Stephane Sessegnon – After a relatively slow start to his Sunderland career following his move from PSG in January the Benin international has become an integral part of Bruce’s side. The midfielder has been playing in the hole behind Bendtner for much of the season and if given time and space he could do some serious damage against the Cottagers.
This will be the 15th top flight meeting between the two teams with Sunderland managing to beat Fulham only three times in 14 attempts with their last win coming in January 2009.
Fulham – 16th
Lost 3-1 v Tottenham (H), Won 4-1 v Wisla Krakow (H), Won 2-0 v Wigan (A), Lost 3-1 v Everton (A), Lost 1-0 v Wisla Krakow (A)
Potential Starting X11
1. M. Schwarzer 6. C. Baird 18. A. Hughes 5. B. Hangeland 3. J. Riise 16. D. Duff 13. D. Murphy [C] 4. S. Sidwell 23. C. Dempsey 30. M. Dembele 25. B. Zamora*
The Cottagers will be without half a dozen first team players for the trip up North with Andy Johnson and Zdenek Grygera the latest faces to the take refuge in the Fulham treatment room.
Bobby Zamora – 2011 has been kind to Zamora with England recognition coming his way and along with nine goals in all competitions after regaining his match sharpness after breaking his leg last year. Made his first start for the national side in mid-week and proved that he can offer something different to Fabio Capello’s side. His club manager will need his strength and determination up front on Saturday if Fulham are going to come away from the Stadium of Light with a hoard of precious points.
Last Time at the Stadium of Light
Premier League 30th April 2011
Sunderland 0-3 Fulham
Kakuta 33, Davies 61, 73
Referee: Martin Atkinson
PREDICTION Both sides have suffered through underwhelming starts to the seasons with pre-season predictions tipping them to make a major impact in the top half. Some lethargic performances from Fulham have given credence to the theory that their Europa League campaign is proving detrimental to their league form. Sunderland on the other hand have seen a side full of new faces struggle to cohere but there is light at the end of the tunnel with recent displays proving to be very encouraging. The Cottagers are struggling on the road whilst the Black Cats are unbeaten in their last four at home.