Sebastian Larsson will be one of a number of first-teamers O'Neill will be looking to welcome back to his squad for tomorrow's pre-season clash in Sweden
The lads pack their bags and head to foreign shores for the next fitness boosting clash this summer as Swedish side Helsingborgs IF host Martin O'Neill's men. It is also a fixture which should provide Sunderland fans with their first glimpse of first teamers such as John O'Shea, James McClean and Sebastian Larsson, to name just a few, this pre-season having returned back to training following additional time off due to their recent exertions for their national sides.
Having recently brought such fascinating insight to our pre-season opposition on the weekly podcast, such as Helsingborg's crest including a wreath of gem lettuce, I find myself tasked with today's preview. So, if its more facts from the net or simply made up information on tonight's opposition you're after, you're in the right place!
Helsingborgs IF were formed in 1907, became a founder member of Allsvenskan and have gone on to win the championship seven times as well as the Svenska Cupen five times. Whilst most commonly known as "The Reds", presumably due to their choice in kit colour, the club seemingly must have decided that the moniker was not original enough and as such can also be referred to as Mjolkkossan... The Milk Cows.
The Swedish outfit ply their trade at the Olympia, which has been their home since 1898. The ground itself has seen a number of upgrades over the years and there are currently plans in place for the ground to be converted to a 17,200 all-seater stadium by 2014. At present the ground boasts capacity for around 7,500 on their terraces and a further 9,673 seated.
Recent History & Success
Helsingborgs will go into the 2012/13 season full of confidence following their impressive treble last term, securing the league title fairly comfortably before adding both available Swedish cup competitions to their collection. The first side in Swedish football to achieve the feat. Although the manager behind that success, Conny Karlsson, has since stepped down, the Helsingborgs followers will be hoping for more success this season and ahead.
The club have retired the number seventeen shirt in a mark of respect for former player Henrik Larsson, following his remarkable goal scoring record for the club which saw him total a fantastic 104 goals in 163 games for the side.
Rumours that Rade Prica's shirt number is next in line may well be wide of the mark.
Following Conny Karlsson's resignation in June, Helsingborgs have moved to replace him with Age Hareide. Hareide is an experienced chap who made his name as a defender, earning fifty caps for Norway and also a couple of years in England with Manchester City and Norwich in the early 1980's.
Hareide made a successful transition to management and as a coach has won three European countries' national league championships - Denmark, Sweden and Norway. This an achievement which puts him alongside Trond Sollied and Sven-Goran Eriksson while only Ernst Happel and Giovanni Trapattoni have managed to go one better and win championships in four countries.
Hareide has also had a stint managing the Norwegian national side, however his five year spell in charge was not particularly successful as he failed to lead his squad to any international tournaments and following a poor start to the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign he resigned.
The Helsingborgs bench will also have a familiar face to Sunderland fans in the shape of former midfielder Stefan Schwarz who is currently Hareide's assistant.
Helsingborgs currently sit fifth in the Allsvenskan, seven points adrift of leaders Elsborg, with a squad made up mainly of native Swedes. The side will go into the game following a very impressive 0-3 victory away to the Polish champions Silesia Wroclaw in the UEFA Champions League qualifying round three match, picking off Wroclaw with an effective counterattacking gameplan.
One To Watch
The standout performer as of late for SAFC's hosts is undoubtedly Alfred Finnbogason who has been in ruthless form infront of goal so far this season. The twenty-three year old Swede has found the back of the net eleven times in twenty appearances across all competitions having joined the club on loan from Lokeren.
Tough Test For Sunderland?
Helsingborgs should certainly offer a step up in quality of opposition and a different style of game than O'Neill's squad has faced so far this summer. The Swedish side are known for promoting attractive, attacking football so this could prove to be a nice test for the Sunderland defence and also an opportunity to tune up the counter attack which served O'Neill so well following his arrival at the club.
The fact that Helsingborgs are also halfway through their season, should only further add to the test that awaits Sunderland tomorrow.
Talk coming out of the club this week has revealed that Stephane Sessegnon and Ahmed Elmohamady will be left out of the squad making the trip, with additional training on the agenda to help get them back up to speed with the rest of the squad. Phil Bardsley has also picked up an ankle injury and will not be selected for the travelling squad. However the return of John O'Shea, Sebastian Larsson and James McClean should make a big difference to the team sheet that we have seen turn out recently.
O'Shea will make a welcome return to a back line which has been plagued by a visibly unfit Titus Bramble, who's preseason has been defined by his costly mistake at Hartlepool. Whilst Bramble could certainly benefit from further match practice if this summer is anything to go by you get the impression that O'Neill will instead take the opportunity to try and forge a partnership at the centre of his defence between John O'Shea and Carlos Cuellar.
The inclusion of both James McClean and Sebastian Larsson should instantly, in theory at least, rectify the lack of creativity that Sunderland suffered at Hartlepool whilst also adding the pace and running that McClean can offer.
Whilst pre-season is of course all about fitness and fine-tuning the squad, with three games to go until the new season kicks off you would hope to see the quality on the pitch improve a little more and with players returning to the squad and potential new signings on the cards the added competition for places should see a marked improvement in what we see on the pitch.