Sunderland host Fulham tomorrow, looking to bounce back from a run of three consecutive defeats. The Black Cats registered their first win over The Cottagers in six attempts back in November, and will be looking to complete the double over Martin Jol's men this weekend.
Sunderland Team News
Danny Rose remains sidelined through hamstring trouble, Wes Brown - a perennial absentee - shows no signs of overcoming his knee problem any time soon, while Lee Cattermole's own knee problem appears only to be worsening. Reports emanated today that the Black Cats' skipper has received an injection for the issue that has plagued him since November and, should that see no easing to his pain, he could well need surgery.
Despite a mixed bag of a performance at The Hawthorns last week, it is highly likely that Martin O'Neill will persevere with a front two of Steven Fletcher and Danny Graham. David Vaughan may displace Seb Larsson in central midfield, where the latter was particularly poor last weekend.
Fulham Team News
Martin Jol is largely looking at people returning from injury ahead of tomorrow's tussle at the Stadium of Light. Simon Davies, who hasn't played first-team football for almost a year, appears to have made a full recovery from his knee problem. With Alexander Kacaniklic looking set to seal a loan move to Burnley, Davies could very well feature from the start.
Jol also looks likely to have two other midfielders made re-available for selection. Kerim Frei is rumoured to have recovered from a pelvic injury, while ex-Sunderland man Kieran Richardson made a return to training prior to last week's defeat of Stoke, and will hope to line up against his former side. The likelihood, though, is that Richardson will only start the game as a substitute.
However, Mali national team captain and dominant midfielder Mahamadou Diarra remains on the sidelines with knee trouble.
Sunderland: Mignolet; Gardner, Colback, Bramble, O'Shea; Johnson, Sessegnon, N'Diaye, Larsson; Fletcher, Graham
Fulham: Schwarzer; Reither, Riise, Senderos, Hangeland; Dejagah, Davies, Sidwell, Duff; Ruiz; Berbatov
Key Matchup: John O'Shea vs Dimitar Berbatov
Without doubt, the Bulgarian striker is Fulham's star man. His rifling volley in first half stoppage time at home to Stoke last week was of stunning quality, a goal worthy of winning any game. Back in November, Berbatov tormented the Sunderland backline, registering numerous attempts in the opening half and showing movement that repeatedly outwitted John O'Shea and Carlos Cuellar.
With his side down to ten men in the second half, Berbatov's role was diminished, but he still showed real quality in a deeper role. John O'Shea, often solid, showed his penchant for lapses in concentration last week when he foolishly dove in on Romelu Lukaku, setting in motion a set of events that resulted in West Brom's crucial second goal. If O'Shea can remain disciplined in the tackle and strong in the air, it could go some way towards negating The Cottagers' biggest attacking threat.
Recent Form: LWLDW
Loss: Manchester United 4-1 Fulham (Giggs 3 (pen), Rooney 50, Hernandez 52, 66; Hughes 77)
Win: Fulham 3-1 West Ham United (Berbatov 10, Rodallega 49, O'Brien 90+1 (OG); Nolan 48)
Loss: Fulham 0-1 Manchester United (Rooney 79)
Draw: Norwich City 0-0 Fulham
Win: Fulham 1-0 Stoke City (Berbatov 45+2)
Last Time Around: Sunderland 0-0 Fulham, 19/11/11
It's telling of how poor the game was when Fulham last visited the Stadium of Light that I - a sad, sad individual with an almost encyclopaedic recollection of Sunderland games since I began following us way back in 1996 - struggled to recall the scoreline. As it were, 0-0 was an accurate result, in a dour game that Sunderland nevertheless felt they should have nicked all three points.
With Steve Bruce steering a rudderless ship into an oncoming storm - his final failing, the 2-1 home defeat to Wigan Athletic, would come just a week later - Sunderland struggled to score past The Cottagers for the fifth consecutive game. The Wearsiders edged proceedings, and Fulham stopper Mark Schwarzer was required to make a stunning save from Jack Colback when the young midfielder looked certain to have scored. Yet, for all their pluck, the home side could not convert. In what became the story of Bruce's final half season in charge, a promising opening half was followed by a dour second. Indeed, the manager's dismissal may have came a week earlier had Lee Cattermole not cleared a Dickson Etuhu effort off the line in the closing moments.
The Ref: Mark Halsey
51-year-old Halsey has officiated both of tomorrow's sides in the league already this season. His one game in charge of Martin Jol's Fulham came in September's home defeat to reigning champions Manchester City, where he awarded The Cottagers a tenth-minute penalty which Mladen Petric duly converted.
He has overseen Sunderland twice this term. First, he took charge of the dour 0-0 draw at Stoke City, booking Danny Rose and Craig Gardner along with two Stoke players. Then, in December, he oversaw Chelsea's 3-1 win on Wearside, where he awarded the visitors a penalty for Seb Larsson's reckless challenge on Ramires.
What The Managers Said
The win at Fulham earlier in the season was an important one in the context of things at that particular time.
Now, following the Wigan game we were on a high but had a stodgy game against Swansea at the Stadium of Light followed by three fixtures I feel we should have got something from.
It's a big game. There's a lot of games still to be played, but it's an important fixture for both teams.
Fulham had a great win last weekend and afterwards I heard their manager saying it was an important one as they have been looking over their shoulder.
Any side in the bottom half of the table should still be doing that.
One result can inspire confidence and they will feel they are capable of taking on anyone, but it really is up to us.
We have the wherewithal and the drive and determination to see the last third of the season through as strongly as possible. That necessitates winning some matches.
On Lee Cattermole's injury:
[Lee] went to see the specialist and he has given him an injection. At this moment, he is hoping in the next couple of weeks that that would cure things.
But if it doesn't, then we might have to have another look at things, so we will see how it goes.
[Surgery] has been mentioned, but we will see.
I wouldn't start to draw too many conclusions from that at the moment, but that might be the case.
Like a lot of other teams, we set a target that we would like to have 40 points.
Then we can relax maybe a bit more and, from then on, try to get as high up the table as possible.
If you see the league over the last five or six years, you will see the same situation. There are three of four clubs down there but, at the end of every year, you always see one or two teams dropping into trouble.
Wigan, for example, are almost specialists at getting out of trouble, so there will always be one or two clubs dragged into it and we don't want to be one of those clubs.
Our first target was to stay in the league because that's important for the club. If you look at the resources all the clubs in the Premier League get at the end of the year, it's vital for us to stay in the league. And then even 12th or 11th would be fantastic for us.
Roker Report Predicts
Form would go against either side picking up a positive result here. Sunderland have lost their last three league games, failed to win in each of their previous three home games in all competitions, and have won only one of six games against Fulham. The visitors, meanwhile, have won just one of their previous ten away games.
That said, this is the first time under Martin O'Neill that the Black Cats have lost three consecutive Premier League games, and the manager will be looking for a response. Fulham's form this season has been erratic and, following a good result last weekend, it would be hardly surprising if they were to perform poorly this time around.
Sunderland's profligacy in front of goal was never more clearly evident that last week at West Brom, so any victory for them tomorrow will be a narrow one. Expect a slim home win or a draw.