The big question for Saturday is: will Sunderland pull themselves out of their collective funk and win at Aston Villa? Craig Gardner and manager Martin O’Neill both have incentives to impress against their old club – and so does Phil Bardsley, who had 13 games with them under O’Neill in a loan deal when the Scottish International was at Man. Utd.
Sunderland are likely to be without our talismanic captain Lee Cattermole, but on the positive side John O'Shea may return to the team for the first time in a month, with Matt Kilgallon possibly making way for the Irish defender.
Apparently our chairman and owner Ellis Short has set manager Martin O'Neill the target of a top-6 finish in the Premier League next season. This will require some investment, especially in our strike force, but it does not sound too crazy when one considers we just had 2 wins up to the Northern Irishman’s arrival in December.
From an England point of view, I was pleased to learn that Darren Bent is running again after his horrendous ankle injury that has kept him on the sidelines for months, and left him in doubt for the European Championship.
For this game, Villa could welcome back winger Marc Albrighton after he returned to training following a thigh injury, but there are considerable doubts over the fitness of Stephen Warnock, Fabian Delph (both ankle), Ciaran Clark and Chris Herd (both head).
My Villa blog counterpart Kevin Hughes, gifted writer as he is, rarely previews matches, but has posted a blog with the title “Welcome back, Martin O'Neill” which starts with “So, welcome back, Martin” and continues with “We knew you'd return one day, although, if we're honest, it was something of a mild surprise that you're back with Sunderland”. So an unauspicious start, but the blog is beautifully written and sums perhaps a a somewhat misty-eyed view of the MON era at Villa.
I was there at Villa Park in January 2011 when we won 1-0 under Steve Bruce. By then Gerard Houllier had taken the hot seat and things did not seem that great. I was also there when Villa drew 2-2 at the SSOL in October, and the side looked to be balanced and adventurous, definitely shading possession in that game.
O’Neill took the Villans to 6th in his last 3 seasons in charge and this weekend is his first time back at Villa Park since his departure. The pre-match focus is therefore unavoidably going to be on the return of Martin O'Neill.
This year has been different for the home side. The Midlanders come into the game on 35 points, just 6 points above the relegation spots and they will have to scrap against us and also against Bolton on Tuesday, largely because of their failure to win in their last 5 games. The resurrection of Wigan, who could easily overtake the home team if they plunder something from Fulham, has unsettled our hosts. It could yet drag them down, the loss of Young and Downing have been key factors in their underperforming season.
To quote the BBC website: Maximum points would see Villa reach 41. Two defeats and it will be a nervous end to the campaign. Recent form suggests an extended period of anxiety ahead for the Villa faithful, who have seen them win only once in their last 11 Premier League fixtures, and they're without a victory in their last five.
But it's also fair to say that Sunderland have lost their way of late, so this is an excellent opportunity for Villa. The Black Cats haven't scored in their last three games and are without a league win in their last four.
We may see brothers on opposing sides this weekend. Sunderland's Craig Gardner, who started his career with Villa, could be up against his younger brother Gary in what's sure to be an interesting confrontation if they both play.
Villa need points. They've only won once at home in the league in 2012 and only four times in 16 all season. It is certainly going to be another tense afternoon for the home fans.
I hope that the Sunderland team that shows up is the one that dominated Manchester City, and not the one that stuttered against Everton away. Cattermole is a miss, if he features, then we could bring back the Etihad form. We need to score, and I look to the midfield to provide the armoury tomorrow...
©Lars J.S. Knutsen