Most of us are currently looking no further than Saturday’s visit from last season’s unexpected (but welcome) champions Leicester City. It is game Sunderland really need to win. But even the mighty boost to morale that a victory would bring would then subside if we went to Swansea a week later and fell to fellow strugglers. With that in mind, a new writer to us, Rachel Johnson*, looks at what the experts are making of that trip to South Wales …
With just over one third of this season’s Premier League matches already played, Sunderland sit at the foot of the table with just eight points from 13 games. For many supporters, at least until the heartening back-to-back wins against Bournemouth and Hull City, the Lads’ failings on the pitch were enough to revive bad memories of the infamous 2002-2003 and 2005-2006 seasons.
In each of those campaigns, Sunderland was a name synonymous with ineptitude as the club took the lowest point totals in Premier League history, 19 and 15 respectively.
Happily for Sunderland fans, this unwanted record was broken by Derby County’s disastrous run of 2007-2008, the Rams registering just one win (against Newcastle United as it happens) and finishing with 11 points. Small comfort, perhaps, but just enough to wash away the taste of misery.
The Lads seem likely at least to eclipse those shaming points tallies by the end of this season, but will need to do rather more if relegation is once again to be avoided.
Saturday’s result against Leicester City is vital to this effort, of course. But the next match – to be held within the intimate confines of the Liberty Stadium against Swansea City on December 10 – offers a bittersweet opportunity.
While Sunderland are perched on the lowest rung on the League ladder, the Swans are struggling mightily in their own right, having only nine points from 13 games ahead of this weekend’s visit to Tottenham Hotspur.
At 19th position, Swansea are perilously close to relegation, too. The outcome of the Swansea-Sunderland game could therefore assume crucial importance in determining who goes down and who retains Premier League status come May.
But for the first time since the season began, Swansea will start as favourites, according to football bookmakers, on even odds as the home side to beat Sunderland. That leaves the Lads as 11/4 underdogs, odds just slightly better than the 11/5 offered for a draw, but regardless of their team’s status as underdogs, Sunderland supporters will not wish to settle for anything less than the full three points. Technically speaking, an outright win by the Lads would represent quite the bad beat for Swansea backers, but Sunderland have shown the better form of late.
For Swansea, a team that released manager Francesco Guidolin on October 3 after he managed just a single victory in seven matches, the current campaign has been contentious to say the least. Guidolin was replaced by Bob Bradley, former boss of the United States National Team and the first American to lead a Premier League squad. Bradley posted a pair of draws and three losses in his first five matches, before securing a historic first win in a 5-4 comeback from being behind, late in the game, at home to Crystal Palace.
As for the Lads, confidence levels may be dictated by the result of Saturday’s visit from last season’s history makers, Leicester.
The recent record, two wins and two losses, falling to Liverpool and Arsenal while prevailing in those games at Bournemouth and at home to Hull, is respectable. They remain the only two wins of the season to date, however, following eight losses and two draws.
If Sunderland are to secure an 11th straight year in football’s top tier, they have to rise to the occasion both at the Stadium of Light on Saturday and a week after that at Swansea, where an equally desperate side will also be attempting to salvage their season.
* * Our contributor Rachel Johnson is a native of Wales and a lifelong supporter of all things football and Rugby Union. She now lives and works in London.