Who keeps goal against the stars of Manchester United on Saturday? Craig Gordon’s recovery from injury hands a tough old decision to Steve Bruce …
Simon Mignolet has faced three of the supposedly top clubs already in a season that is still very young.
After those games against Man City, Arsenal and Liverpool, his record is impressive:
P3 W1 D2 L0 F4 A3 Pts5
The statistics reflect robust team performances, of course.
But the young Belgian, having made a slightly wobbly start in the opening game against Birmingham City, has been an undoubted star of our highly respectable start in which more discipline against lowlier opposition would have seen us very near the top of the Premier League
So who is that snapping at Mignolet’s heels just as we prepare to face yet another mighty challenge, Manchester United at home on Saturday?
Craig Gordon, who had an excellent 2009/10 season when not injured, is back to fitness, played 90 minutes for the Reserves in a creditable 1-1 draw at Villa and has declared as his straightforward target a first team return against United.
It is a big decision for Steve Bruce and the choice he makes may be influenced by his and the club’s medium-term thinking on Gordon.
Arsenal have been reported as being interested in a move for Gordon in the New Year transfer window.
Bruce will know whether this amounts to more than idle speculation; if it does, then his choice on Saturday may well be influenced to some extent by how fixed he is on keeping his No 1 keeper.
Gordon cost us £9m, is Scotland’s first choice and, on his day, ranks among the Premier’s best keepers. No one would expect him to settle for understudy status, and it would be a gross misuse of a £9m investment to think of him in such terms.
And yet Mignolet has been a revelation. No one knew quite whether he would be up to the Premier League and his response has been magnificent.
So we have gone from an immediate pre-season of anxiety about having any keeper fit and convincing enough at all to an embarrassment of riches. Mignolet may be utterly philosophical about Bruce’s dilemma; he is almost certainly human enough to believe he has done everything that could possibly have been expected of him to keep his place.
From the official club site, we learn that Gordon had a busy start at Villa Park, “holding James Collins’s 30-yard shot before turning another effort onto the post”. There is no hint of culpability in the Villa goal: “he was beaten when Collins crossed for Berry to hammer home across the face of goal.”
Bruce himself says: “The competition is fierce at the moment and that’s great. As a manager I want two people in every position. Simon’s form at the moment has enabled us to not rush Craig back when maybe we might have done before.”
Read as much or as little as you wish into those words, remembering that Bruce has shown himself to be perfectly capable of a spot of kidology prior to actual team selection.
It is perhaps asking too much that any Salut! Sunderland reader was at Villa Park – though even our away Reserve games attract a little knot of SAFC supporters – and can offer a clue as to how assured and ready Gordon looked.
But I bet there’s plenty of lively opinion among Sunderland fans generally on whether we should be pinning our hopes on Mignolet in the sure knowledge that this would also mean preparing for a future without Craig Gordon.