If Asamoah Gyan makes this face on Saturday, we're probably kind of screwed. (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)
Sunderland are a tricky, tricky team for me to wrap my head around. In my mind they're playing quite well, right on par with Villa having downed Manchester City and managed a draw with Arsenal. The thing about Sunderland, though, is that they draw a lot. And man oh man do I mean a lot. In eight games so far, Sunderland have won once, lost once and drawn six times. they have a goal difference of zero I know that it's not extraordinary; Fulham have the exact same mark. (It has been prophesied that when Sunderland and Fulham face off the entire world will stop spinning on its axis. Which will be problematic once all of the crops die, but if it stops at just the right time I might finally get a decent tan for once in my life.) It still strikes me as insane.
The point is, I don't really know whether Sunderland are any good or not. They certainly seem like they would be. They've managed some pretty spectacular results, defeating Manchester City and earning a draw against Arsenal in spectacular fashion. They've also managed to lose to West Brom and drew 0-0 at Blackburn, which Gareth wrote about the other day. The 0-0 draw to Blackburn, interestingly enough, appears next to the Oxford English Dictionary for "Oh God why why why."
What I'm getting at here is that Sunderland are largely quite boring. I don't necessarily meant that as a slight (I don't think.) I actually kind of like Sunderland, for somewhat unexplainable reasons. Sunderland shouldn't be boring though, which is what I think annoys me. Darren Bent scores an absurd amount of goals. Asamoah Gyan is absolutely thrilling to watch, assuming he's not destroying the hopes and dreams of an entire nation's soccer loving population. Steve Bruce looks very much like a drunk, but he seems like he would be the fun, singing and dirty joke telling drunk rather than the makes uncomfortable comments about ethnic minorities or political movements under the guise of "telling it like it is" sort of drunk.
Sunderland can be fun, but they're usually not. The problem is that when they are fun it is because they are scoring the kinds of goals that make opposing supporters want to stab themselves. There are really only three plausible outcomes for this contest; Villa win, Villa lose in gut-wrenching fashion or "MAKE IT END." While on the one hand I endured enough of the latter under Martin O'Neill, I'd gladly take it over what could prove to be a fairly costly defeat. This is probably a game Villa should take three from seeing as how they're the superior club on the balance of talent, but the Stadium of Light isn't an easy place to play and to his credit Steve Bruce is a man that is capable of making tactical adjustments on the fly and finding a point where it's available. A draw is the most likely outcome here, and though I'll most likely be annoyed when the whistle blows since I'm capable of being rational at the moment so I will say that it would be a fine result, though a win would go a very long way towards convincing me that Villa are in a position to make a run at the Champions League.
What to Watch:
- Emile Heskey. Assuming, of course, that he's fit enough to play. Sunderland are most dangerous on the counter, especially when Gyan is present. Villa are most susceptible to the counter when their own counter-attacking play breaks down. Heskey's ability to read the defense and hold up play could go a long way towards neutralizing the threat.
- Villa's right-back. Luke Young is out; Habib Beye will most likely start despite a decidedly mediocre performance against Chelsea. It's the biggest weakness in Villa's defense (and for the record, this stands if Eric Lichaj gets the start) and if Sunderland are able to case problems down that wing it could get iffy.
- The lineup. The 4-2-3-1 worked well against Chelsea; was Houllier's choice borne from necessity? Will he go in an altogether different direction based on Sunderland's strengths/weaknesses and the available personnel? The 4-2-3-1 seems a far better choice than the 4-4-2 against a counter-attacking side such as Sunderland, but there is a case to be made for many other tactical approaches. If we see a 4-4-2 with Stephen Ireland in the center once again, well...
This is a bigger game than it seems. This is one of the only matches Villa could expect to win during this current stretch of schedule. If Villa can shut down Sunderland's counter and dominate the midfield (and this is one of the few times Villa's central midfield have a significant leg-up on the opposition) three points are well within reach. And while a draw is acceptable, three points would be pretty excellent right now.