Blues Travel to Sunderland Aiming to End Top Side Hoodoo
Tuesday, 3rd Nov 2020 06:00
Town visit Sunderland this evening looking to beat one of the sides currently in League One’s top 11 places for the first time this season.
The Blues are second in table and have won seven of their first 10 league games, drawing one and losing two, but the highest-placed team they have beaten up to now are Accrington, who are 12th.
Town's two defeats have come away against Doncaster and Lincoln, currently eighth and third respectively.
It was a similar story last season when the Blues beat only Fleetwood and Gillingham - both once, away from home - of the 10 teams who finished above them in the points-per-game-settled table.
Sixth-placed Sunderland are the division’s biggest name with the Stadium of Light its largest ground with a 49,000 capacity - empty on this evening, of course - but Town manager Paul Lambert says the size and history of a club matters little once the players cross the white line.
“I think every game is [a big test],” he said. [The Crewe game] was a test, every game we play is. The name and the stature of the club doesn’t really count, it’s what happens on the grass, that’s evident. You can be a big club in name but you have to play on the grass.
“It’s going to be really tough. We have a long journey, really tough, we don’t know how the guys will feel. We’ll have to look at it and see who’s fit and who’s not.
“Great stadium, great club history-wise, they’re going well in the league and it’s a tough game, but a tough game for them as well.”
Regarding that record of not beating teams from the division’s higher echelons, Lambert was asked whether a victory over the Black Cats might break a mental barrier.
“I don’t know because we failed in a lot of games towards the tail end [of last season],” he said. “We drew at Wycombe, for example, and they went up. We were so dominant and we drew there.
“You have to [look to] win every game to have a chance to win a title, and that’s the way I view it. I’ll view Sunderland as equally hard as I view Crewe, it’s going to be really tough. We go there and we have to try and win.”
Would a win at the Stadium of Light send out a message? “We will go up there and we’ll try and play the same way, try and play the same football, we’ll try and hopefully get guys back fit and guys fresh. I’m really happy with how things are going.”
But he knows the Blues, who have won two, lost two and drawn one away from home this season, will have to put in a performance which is an improvement on Saturday’s display against Crewe with Town under par despite picking up all three points.
“We have to be better,” he admitted. “The result was great, performance-wise, it wasn’t. But as I’ve said before, I’ve been involved in games where we’ve played really well and come away with nothing.
“So you take these things when they happen, being resolute and strong, I’m absolutely delighted with how we did it.”
Quizzed on how the busy schedule of fixtures is impacting upon his squad, he added: “It’s hard because all you’re doing is playing and resting, it’s tough. You’re asked to play Tuesday-Saturday, Tuesday-Saturday.”
Unlike the recent trips to Doncaster and Lincoln when they travelled on the day, the Blues travelled on Monday and stayed overnight in a hotel, all in single rooms rather than sharing as was the case prior to the pandemic.
Given that games are coming so frequently, Lambert seems likely to make one or two changes to the team which beat Crewe 1-0 at the weekend.
Keeper Tomas Holy will continue in goal and Lambert is likely to stick with his back four, skipper Luke Chambers and Stephen Ward at full-back and Luke Woolfenden and Mark McGuinness at centre-half.
In midfield, Lambert could again look to rest Teddy Bishop, as he did for the recent midweek trip to Doncaster, which would probably see Emyr Huws come into the side with Jon Nolan serving the third game of his three-match ban. Andre Dozzell and Alan Judge are likely to keep their places.
Up front, Oli Hawkins will again be the central striker but Lambert could opt to rest Freddie Sears and start either Jack Lankester or Keanan Bennetts - who would be making his full senior debut - on the right with Gwion Edwards on the left.
Sunderland have no new injury worries ahead of the game. Centre-half Arbenit Xhemajli is out for the season having undergone knee surgery last week, while another central defender Morgan Feeney is sidelined long-term and young forward Benji Kimpioka is unavailable, both due to a hamstring injuries.
Centre-half Jordan Willis has a knee problem which is currently being managed and is unlikely to be involved against the Blues.
Elliot Embleton is on the way back after a thigh injury but Tuesday’s match will come too soon for the midfielder.
The Wearsiders go into Tuesday’s game off the back of a 2-0 away win against 10-man Gillingham on Saturday with Chris Maguire netting a penalty in the 84th minute and Lynden Gooch adding the second on 90.
At the Stadium of Light in League One this season the Black Cats have won two, drawn one and lost one, a 3-1 loss to Portsmouth just over a week ago.
Wearsiders’ manager Phil Parkinson says the game will be viewed as an examination of both teams’ capabilities as they target a return to the Championship.
“People will look at this game and see it as a test of both sides' promotion credentials - that is bound to happen when you play against teams that are expected to compete at the top of the table,” Parkinson told the Newcastle Chronicle.
“For our part, we have beaten Peterborough already this season and we went to Charlton - who have since emerged as a very strong side - and we outplayed them for long periods, even though it ended goalless.
“Hull are another side near the top and we dominated the Carabao Cup game against them, although we ended up losing on penalties. Then against Portsmouth in our last home game, admittedly we weren't at our best.
“So we have played a few of the top six contenders and this is another one, and I'm pleased we're going into it on the back of a terrific win at Gillingham at the weekend.”
Turning to Town, he added: “Ipswich had a good start, then they had a couple of indifferent away performances at Doncaster and Lincoln, but they have bounced back in two tight games against Gillingham and Crewe and come out on top in both of those.
“They will have been pleased to get the win against Crewe at the weekend. Crewe will probably feel they deserved something from the game but it's about taking your chances when you are on top and Ipswich did that while Crewe didn't.
“Ipswich will be up there and one of the teams that will be up in and around the automatic promotion places come the end of the season.”
Historically, the sides are closely matched with Town having won 23 of the games between the teams (23 in the league) and Sunderland 21 (19) with eight (eight) having ended in draws.
The teams met most recently at the Stadium of Light in February when Maguire’s 81st minute goal saw Sunderland to a 1-0 victory, sending the Blues down to seventh in League One.
Town were much the better team in the first half but the Black Cats, who moved up to sixth, were on top in the second and had hit the woodwork twice prior to their winner.
In August last year at Portman Road, Luke 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 Jon McLaughlin in the 15th minute as the Blues dominated the first half but Gooch profited from Town skipper Chambers’s error on 64 to claim an undeserved equaliser for the visitors.
Former Blues captain Grant 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.
Keeper Remi Matthews spent time training with the Blues in the summer and was understood to have been offered a contract but ultimately joined the Black Cats.
Striker Danny Graham was also believed to have spoken to Town in the summer following his release by Blackburn but was always expected to sign with a club in the North.
Blues keeper-coach Jimmy Walker was at Sunderland before joining the Town staff in November 2018.
Tuesday’s referee is Peter Wright from Merseyside, who has shown 31 yellow cards and no red in eight games this season. Wright will be taking charge of his first Town match.
Photo: Matchday Images
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