Sunderland host west London outfit Queens Park Rangers on Saturday eyeing up a home win to possibly take the Lads into nose bleed terrority of the very top of the Championship. This is something hard to imagine back on 8th February when the Lads lost to Cheltenham Town, falling out of the play-off places in League One, managerless and hopeless. Enter Scotsman Alex Neil with his shiny head, straight-up patter, and tactical nous to get us back on our way to where we should be.
So what do we know about the visitors. Well, last season under Mark Warburton QPR were very much mid-table winning as many as they lost and scoring as many as they conceded, with nothing to separate home and away form. Once two points off the top two in January, QPR finished 11th, with a run of just three wins in 16 games seeing them slip back to finish in mid-table mediocracy.
The summer saw Warburton depart, replaced by Michael Beale, who was Steven Gerrard’s assistant at both Rangers and Aston Villa. A relatively young coach, Beale wants to be “a front foot and high-intensity team, in and out of possession”. Well you’re not going to claim to play boring football.. well unless you’re Phil Parkinson that is, then of course strap yourselves in Wrexham.
So far QPR have lost to Blackburn and beaten Middlesbrough, leaving them on the better end of the table. Stefan Johansen is the skipper, and with over 50 caps for Norway, brings a lot of experience into the centre of midfield. Scottish international Lyndon Dykes will lead the line, and although not prolific, will cause problems for the Sunderland back line. Moroccan International Ilias Chair is also one to watch as an attacking midfielder.
At this point I’d be waxing lyrical about Chris Willock, but it looks like he’s set to miss this weekend’s game through injury, something the former Arsenal graduate is all too familiar with. Willock is an exciting talent and was in the goals (7) and assists (11) last term before a hamstring injury cut his season short, requiring surgery. QPR’s new signing and former Sunderland loanee from the car-crash 2017/18 campaign, Jake Clarke-Salter, is also set to miss out through injury. Luke Amos and George Thomas are expected to be out too, and possibly new signing Kenneth Paal, which would leave them significantly short in the full back area.
Tyler Roberts has been brought in from Leeds on a season-long loan. He hasn’t featured in the league so far, but got his first goal in their Carabao Cup defeat against Charlton on Tuesday night. The young centre forward played 26 games for Leeds last season, mostly off the bench, but will be hopeful of representing Wales at the upcoming middle-east 50 degree kickabout that is the World Cup. Albert Adomah and Macauley Bonne are attacking options off the bench. Beale likes to play a 4-2-3-1 formation, so we may see Neil match them up if he dares change an unbeaten formula. Beale has used 9 of his 10 allotted subs in the two games so far, so is not adverse to changing things up where needed.
For the lads I cannot see the starting line-up changing from last week’s win down at Ashton Gate, particularly given the gutless performance by the second string on Wednesday night at Hillsborough. No new players have been brought in, most notably after the will-he-won’t-he saga of Nathan Broadhead returning to the Sol, where he chose the won’t option. But we move on with the now most feared strikeforce in the EFL, the 2x 6’4″ mobile, strong and athletic pairing of Ross Stewart and Ellis Simms.. the modern day SAS about to tear up the Championship. Well that’s the hope anyway, but three goals in their first 90 minutes together away from home is a pretty canny way to start.
If Neil keeps the same system then it will afford Jack Clarke to continue his relentless pressure down the left hand side, and also give Alex Pritchard the freedom to lead the press and unlock defences. Dan Neil is still learning on the job, but is well supported by captain Corry Evans who had an excellent game last time out managing the battle on a booking for almost the entire match. The only concern will be how easy it was for Bristol City to score twice last week, as Lyndon Gooch must learn that standing way off your man and just sticking your hand up for offside is not likely to cut it anymore in professional football.
There are no major injury concerns for the head coach, other than the fitness issues affecting Niall Huggins return, and a slight thigh problem for Leon Dajaku, so we are likely to be favourites for this top half encounter given our start. The heat will be cracking the flags at the SoL come Saturday, with another bumper crowd expected. I expect us to score, progress will be getting that all important clean sheet. Ha’way the Lads!