O'Neill rumoured to be on the brink as Sunderland toil
Sunderland 2 West Brom 4When Harry Redknapp and Martin O’Neill shake hands at Sunderland tomorrow night, one man will be the subject of a lot of fuss but the other will be under enormous pressure.
Although a much improved performance against West Brom on Saturday was arguably Sunderland’s best at home this season they have won only two of their last 20 league games and officials spent part of yesterday rubbishing rumours that O’Neill had offered to resign.
The Northern Irishman believes he deserves a full season to implement his blueprint but he could do without an impending visit from QPR. Particularly as Lee Cattermole and John O’Shea sustained injuries against West Brom that will sideline them for several weeks.
If only O’Neill could borrow Zoltan Gera and Claudio Yacob for Redknapp’s visit. Gera has spent too much of his career being regarded as a “luxury” yet, on Saturday, the Hungarian playmaker looked an indispensable component of a side enjoying their best start to a season since 1953.
Maybe Gera’s deployment as the central midfield attacker in a 4-2-3-1 formation explains why he was not only able to open the scoring with a gloriously curving 25 yard shot, but offer so much creativity and control to a team that went third after a fourth successive league win.
Perhaps Steve Clarke’s meticulous coaching and clever rotation have also played a part in the 33-year-old’s renaissance.
Despite Sunderland having a sizeable portion of bad luck, O’Neill’s lack of a highly imaginative technician in the Gera mould seemed painfully apparent. Clarke’s system offered contrasting scope for improvisation and reassuring stability. While Stephane Sessegnon scored Sunderland’s second goal and sparked team-mates into attacking life, Clarke’s two-man deep midfield of James Morrison and the impressive Yacob regularly limited the damage by forcing him wide.
Their cause was aided by Simon Mignolet’s fumble that permitted Shane Long to tap West Brom’s second goal into an unguarded net. Craig Gardner’s deflected free-kick reduced the deficit but Liam Ridgewell’s dive secured a penalty converted by Romelu Lukaku before Marc-Antoine Fortune’s stoppage time fourth. As O’Neill acknowledged, QPR is “a big game”.