|Sunderland 1 v 0 Ipswich Town|
SkyBet League One
Saturday, 8th February 2020 Kick-off 15:00
Town Out to Maintain Away Form and Get Back to Winning Ways at Sunderland
Friday, 7th Feb 2020 12:22
Town visit seventh-placed Sunderland on Saturday aiming to continue this season's impressive away form and looking to return to winning ways after two defeats.
Having made a bright start to 2020 and returning to the top of League One, the Blues lost 1-0 at Rotherham 10 days ago and then were beaten 4-1 at Portman Road by Peterborough last weekend, a result which saw them drop to fourth, five points behind leaders Rotherham and two off second-placed Wycombe.
The Blues could end Saturday back in the top two or out of the top six for the first time this season depending on how the afternoon progresses at the Stadium of Light and in games elsewhere.
Manager Paul Lambert sought to play down the individual significance of Saturday’s match against a Black Cats side three points behind the Blues with a game in hand given the number of fixtures there are still to play.
“We go and try and win every game,” he said. “There are 15 games to go, there’s a helluva lot of games, you still can’t see the finish line, that’s for sure.
“There’s a helluva lot of games to go, if we win it will be great and we’ll go and try our best to win.”
He dismissed suggestions that the match could prove to be a pivotal moment in the season.
“Not really because people handle pressure in different ways,” he reflected. “People can go under with pressure and people can thrive on it.
“We’ve got a mixture of young guys and, as I’ve said before, it’s the first time this pressure has been on them where they have to try and get out of a league, whereas before it’s not been that, it’s been flatlining.
“So the pressure is different now to what it is normally, so you’ve got to watch how you put that on them. All I want them to do is go out and play, express themselves and go and enjoy what they’re going into.”
Despite the number of teams breathing down Town's neck, Lambert insists he is looking upwards rather than downwards.
“You always look at the top,” he said. “I’ve never ever looked over my shoulder like that, never will, it’s not the way I’ve been brought up.
“You always want to try and win it, that’s always the case. I’m never going to go ‘What if, what if’, you always look at the top. It’s easier to be the hunter than be the hunted.”
Lambert agreed that the division is there for the taking with no club having been able to break away at the top.
“For anybody yeah,” he said. “Fifteen games is a helluva lot of football to get played and anything can happen, the finishing line isn’t in sight yet, that’s for sure, 15 games is a lot of games.”
Has he broken those 15 matches into blocks? “We show the guys where we think the blocks are and where the points can come from, so we show them things like that.
“Sometimes you can overthink it and it becomes too much, and sometimes you think we’ll just go and play, play our way, play with freedom, go and express yourself and stick to what we asked you to do, but equally so play with confidence.”
Turning to Sunderland, he added: “They are a huge club. I’ve said it before. They’ve been in the league for a couple of years.
“It’s a great place to play, dear oh dear, it’s a brilliant stadium and they’ve had the play-off thing last year and losing their manager and Phil [Parkinson] coming in, and it’s been a bit topsy turvy. But they’ve done well in recent times and it’ll be a hard game.”
Lambert felt the appointment of Parkinson in October was an astute choice given the former Colchester boss’s experience at this level.
“Yes, plus the expectancy level at his club is the same as this club,” he said. “In this league, everybody thinks you’ve got a divine right to go up automatically, and you don’t have a divine right.
“But everybody is in a good place, nobody is really running away with it, there are only a few points between first and seventh place, but there’s a long way to go."
Sunderland are a big fish in League One, bigger even than Town. The Black Cats are in their second season in the third tier having lost in the play-off final to Charlton last year after running out of steam in the final weeks of the campaign and finishing fifth.
Asked whether he looked at their season and sought to learn from their experience as he formulated his approach with Town - including his much-discussed rotation policy - ahead of 2019/20, Lambert said: “You’ve got to play a lot of games, as I said before, the cup games as well.
“And it’s over the course of eight or nine months that you have to try and get a bit of headway.
“So, without a doubt, you need luck with injuries and suspensions, but they’re in the same predicament as ourselves, we’re two big clubs in the division, and everybody expects you to get out of it.”
He added: “I don’t just think Sunderland. I think through the years. Leeds United were in it, Nottingham Forest were in it, Sheffield Wednesday were in it.
“There have been huge clubs in the league and some for longer than others, more than one or two years.
“As I said before, you don’t have a divine right to win a league and get out of a league, you are where you are and we’re two huge clubs. They are where they are at the minute, and we are the same.”
Sunderland have sold more than 30,000 tickets for Saturday’s game with the Stadium of Light faithful anticipating that their side will claim all three points. Might that expectancy work in the Blues’ favour?
“Thirty thousand in a 50,0000-odd seater stadium, there will be a lot of spare seats I’m guessing if you’re 20,000-odd down on people.
“But in years gone by that stadium was brilliant to go and play in when it was full. We’ll go there and they’ll have the majority of support against us and if we can try and frustrate them then they have the expectancy level that we have here.”
He says that’s something Town will be looking to feed off with the game's first goal potentially crucial.
“That’s the plan and if we can do that great,” he added. “We know it’s a hard game, but we also know Sunderland will have a hard game.”
Similarly, Lambert believes the expectancy level at Portman Road is behind the Blues’ Jekyll and Hyde home and away form.
Town have the best away form in the division but are 17th in a table based on home games alone.
“It’ll be the expectancy level that’s there, 20-odd thousand people expecting you to just turn up and win it, but it never happens like that,” he said.
“It doesn’t happen, football never happens like that. Just because you’re at home it doesn’t guarantee you of anything.
“It gives you a better chance because you’ve got the most people in the stadium but it doesn’t guarantee anything.
“It can be a hindrance if you’re not used to it, if you’ve not got the mentality to see it through, so the guys have to get used to that.
“There are two ways I look at it - what do you want to do, play in front of 10,000 people or do you want to play in front of 22,000 people? That’s the making of a footballer, it’s what your mindset can be. Do you want to play under pressure or do you just want to play football for a hobby? That’s not the game, it’s a job.”
Does he believe his team plays with greater freedom away from home as a result? “They’ll feel the lift from the pressure being off them away from home, but being at home is the greatest thing because you’ve got most people there behind you, that’s what you have to be able to handle, especially at a big club. Sunderland have got the same problem.”
But with nine of Town’s remaining 15 games at home, Lambert knows it’s important that the players cope with the expectancy when playing at Portman Road in the months to come.
“They have to because the fans have been brilliant, no matter what you say, the fans have been absolutely brilliant. They come in their thousands to watch it.
“As a footballer you have to take that on board, you have to be able to handle that. But a lot of them are young, it’s the first time that the expectancy level has been really, really on them where they have to try and win a title.
“Normally, [for most of the last 17 years it was largely about] staying in the league, they might have done great getting in the play-offs in 2014/15, but it was probably the last time when there was that expectancy. For five years, there’s not been that, so it’s new for a lot of people, a new scenario.”
Asked what lessons have been learnt from the back-to-back defeats to Rotherham and Peterborough, Lambert said: “Tuesday night’s game was different for different reasons. Saturday wasn’t good enough, everything that could go wrong went wrong that day and you use your experience and you try and keep everybody upbeat from it.
“We’ve looked at it and watched it and seen the problems that have arisen from it. And the guys know that themselves, they know that themselves so you have to move on and go and try and get another positive result on Saturday.
He added: “The guys have been good, they’ve trained really well this week. We know the scenario of what happened last week. Sometimes silence is the most powerful thing at certain times, sometimes you need to go with a bit of aggression at certain people.
“The guys know how I felt, that’s for sure, they also need to look at the bigger picture of what they’ve done for us since they came in, it’s been great this season because the disappointment of relegation can really hurt you.
“But they’ve never been out of the top six all season and that’s testament to themselves.”
One area the Blues might hope to profit from on Saturday is set pieces with both Portsmouth’s goals in their 2-0 victory over Sunderland at Fratton Park last week having come via that route.
“We work on things whether it’s a set play, good play or short or good play in general and if we can do that, that’s great," Lambert said.
“Set plays are vital now in the modern day game, that’s apparent, everybody knows that.
“If you get the delivery right, you’re hoping that you can capitalise on something. We know that it’s a hard game, it’s a tough game for both teams.”
Lambert says he has decided on the team and formation he is going to play: “I know the system we’ll play and the team that will play and I’ll see how everybody is.
“Do we need to find more of a cutting edge? Yes, but we need to be more solid as well, we certainly have to be more solid than what we have been.
“We’ve played really, really well up until the last two games and we have to rectify that.”
Lambert was tight-lipped when asked which of his keepers he would field on Wearside but it seems likely that Tomas Holy will return with Will Norris dropping to the bench following last week’s error.
The Town manager seems certain to stick with his three-man backline of skipper Luke Chambers, James Wilson and Luke Woolfenden despite the two defeats.
There will be changes at wing-back with Luke Garbutt injured and Gwion Edwards suspended for two matches having amasses 10 bookings. Myles Kenlock will start on the left and Janoi Donacien on the right.
In midfield, Emyr Huws is over his ankle problem and looks set to return for Cole Skuse alongside Flynn Downes with Alan Judge ahead of them.
Lambert has a decision to make up front with James Norwood having impressed off the bench against Posh when he netted his 11th goal of the season from the penalty spot.
The former Tranmere man may well return to the XI alongside Kayden Jackson with Will Keane dropping to the bench.
Prior to last week's defeat to Pompey, Sunderland had gone nine games without a defeat, winning five and drawing four.
At home this season they have won seven, drawn six and lost one, a 1-0 defeat to Burton Albion in November.
The Black Cats will be without defender Joel Lynch who has rib and knee problems following a collision with keeper Jon McLaughlin in last weekend’s defeat in which he was also knocked out.
Northern Ireland international Tom Flanagan is set to return to the left of the back three in Lynch’s place.
Striker Charlie Wyke is a doubt having hurt his shoulder at Fratton Park, while skipper and ex-Blue Grant Leadbitter will miss out having been given time away from the club to deal with personal issues.
Looking ahead to the visit of the Blues, Sunderland boss Parkinson, named Manager of the Month for January on Friday morning, says he needs his team to take points off the sides around them.
“Every game is huge from here on in and we need to be excited by that prospect,” he told the Newcastle Chronicle.
“Ipswich started the season great but then had an indifferent run. Recently they have been up and down. They will be three at the back and we know they are a very competitive team.
“First of all, with games coming thick and fast, that is why we recruited players. If we take points off those around us that will be really important.”
Reflecting on his team’s current position, he added: “We have got ourselves in the pack and now it is time to take a deep breath, assess everything, get the staff together for a good chat and we are excited for the challenge ahead.
“We need to make sure in the summer we can look back and say we had given absolutely everything to try and win promotion.”
Historically, the sides are closely matched with Town having won 23 of the games between the teams (23 in the league) and Sunderland 20 (18) with eight (eight) having ended in draws.
In August at Portman Road, Garbutt netted his second goal in two games for the Blues on the quarter-half mark but Lynden Gooch levelled for Sunderland in the second half as Town and the Black Cats drew an entertaining game 1-1 at Portman Road.
Garbutt shot low under Wearsiders’ keeper McLaughlin in the 15th minute as the Blues dominated the first half but Gooch profited from skipper Chambers’s error on 64 to claim an undeserved equaliser for the visitors.
Last time the teams met on Wearside was in February 2018 when Joe Garner’s 10th of the season and an Adam Matthews own goal saw Town to a 2-0 victory over the table-propping Black Cats, their first ever win at the Stadium of Light and their first away at Sunderland since 1989.
Garner netted a brilliant low strike on 35 and Matthews stabbed over his own line in first-half injury time.
Former Blues skipper Leadbitter rejoined his boyhood club from Middlesbrough in January last year.
Leadbitter, 34, signed for Town from the Black Cats in September 2009 for £2.65 million and went on to make 120 starts and six sub appearances before leaving for Boro on a Bosman in the summer of 2012.
Blues keeper-coach Jimmy Walker was at Sunderland before joining the Town staff in November 2018.
Saturday’s referee is Jeremy Simpson from Lancashire, who has shown 63 yellow cards and six red in 19 games so far this season.
The controversial official’s last Town match was the 1-1 home draw with Birmingham in April which confirmed the Blues’ relegation to League One. Simpson booked Chambers, Edwards, James Collins, Toto Nsiala and one of the visitors
Prior to that he took control of the 2-0 loss at Middlesbrough in December 2018 in which he awarded the Teessiders a controversial penalty when Jordan Spence was harshly adjudged to have hauled Jordan Hugill to the ground. He also booked Trevoh Chalobah and Downes as well as one Boro player.
Simpson was also the official in charge of the 2-1 defeat at Sheffield Wednesday in August 2018 when he controversially red-carded Blues central defender Nsiala and booked Jonas Knudsen, Ellis Harrison and two Owls.
Before that he refereed the 3-0 home defeat by Hull City in April of the same year in which he booked only Bersant Celina.
Prior to that game he had refereed only two Town matches in which he awarded a total of four penalties.
The 1-0 defeat at Rotherham in April 2017 which he gave a seventh-minute spot-kick when Josh Emmanuel bundled over Jon Taylor. Dean Gerken saved Danny Ward’s kick.
Loanee Toumani Diagouraga was the only Blues player booked in that fixture, along with two Rotherham players.
Prior to that he was the man in the middle for the 2-1 defeat at Reading in September 2016 in which he notoriously awarded three penalties which led to the game’s three goals.
Danny Williams won the match with the third and spot-kick deep in second-half injury time, Knudsen having been adjudged to have hauled down Joey van den Berg at a corner.
In first-half injury time Grant Ward had been harshly penalised for handball for the game’s first penalty and Garath McCleary put the Royals in front.
Brett Pitman fired home Town’s - also contentious - spot-kick five minutes after the break for a foul by Tyler Blackett.
Simpson also booked nine players in that game, five Royals and Knudsen, Chambers, Skuse and Christophe Berra.
Squad from: Holy, Norris, Donacien, Kenlock, Earl, Chambers (c), Wilson, Woolfenden, Skuse, Dozzell, Downes, Huws, Judge, Nolan, Dobra, Jackson, Keane, Norwood, Sears.
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