Sunderland AFC Match Preview – Cats need to sustain their intensity at Bristol City

Jonny Lambert runs the rule over Bristol City, Sunderland's opponents on Saturday

It’s round two of the EFL Championship and the Lads travel to the west country this Saturday to face the cider-loving Bristol City at Ashton Gate. The Lads will be hoping to build on last weeks’ home draw against Coventry and condemn the Robins to back to back defeats at the start of their campaign.

Bristol City are one half of a two club city that are considered the bigger draw operating at a higher level and having a larger fan base. Over recent decades local rivals Bristol Rovers have been considered somewhat nomadic since their Eastville dog track sharing ground went in the 80’s to make way for an Ikea, then going onto ground share with Bath City before finding their home sharing the Memorial Stadium with Bristol Rugby.

Ironically, Bristol City now house Bristol Bears rugby team at their refurbished Ashton Gate ground, as part of a Bristol Sport initiative owned by Steve Lansdown, which also manages the Bristol Flyers basketball team and the Bristol Ladies football team. As a result some City fans would suggest investment in their squad has been compromised by the many fingers Lansdown has in many sporting pies.

The Robins lost to Hull City in injury time on the opening weekend, and late goals have been a systemic issue for Nigel Pearson’s men, dropping significant points ten times last season after 89 minutes. Most notably was their home defeat to Nottingham Forest, where 1-0 up in the 91st minute, conspired to lose 2-1, a result which kickstarted Forest’s season and ultimately ended in promotion at Wembley.

For City their season never really got going and did just enough to remain in the division, but could’ve been so much better had they managed to see out their leads in so many games. Pearson tends to prefer a 3-4-1-2, with Chris Martin and Andreas Weimann leading the line. Martin is a seasoned physical striker whereas Weimann is a very accomplished attacker with a real eye for goal, likely to make for a tricky afternoon for Ballard, Batth and Cirkin having scored 22 goals last campaign.

In terms of summer business the Robins have been steady without being spectacular, utilising the free transfer market while offloading some personnel running down their contracts. Tricky winger Mark Sykes has been brought in from League One Oxford, and will be a player the Lads are both familiar with and will have to watch after a man of the match performance last week on his league debut for the Robins.

A very savvy buy was Kallum Lachlan “Kal” Naismith from the division’s surprise outfit Luton Town. Not only does he possess arguably the most Scottish name going, but was central to Luton’s relative success last season in making the play-offs. Starting the season as captain, and playing over 40 games, Naismith scored two goals and made eight assists from the centre of defence. Goalkeeper and captain Dan Bentley is subject of interest from Premier League Bournemouth, so if that goes through Max O’Leary will be taking the gloves for the foreseeable.

In terms of injuries, although back in full training Tomas Kalas is not expected to feature, neither is Ayman Benerous who continues to recover from an ACL injury. Former Sunderland loanee Antoine Semenyo, or “Anthony” as Phil Parkinson preferred to call him, got a shin injury whilst playing for Ghana and will not be available for selection. This will be a big loss for City who contrary to Sunderland’s experience with the winger come striker, got 8 goals and 12 assists last term including Championship player of the month in January.

For the Lads it is likely to be very similar to last weekend operating with the promoted team plus Dan Ballard. We can never be sure with Alex Neil but I would expect him to match up his opposite number playing three at the back again, a system now used by the majority of teams in this division. Defensively it worked well against Coventry with the only main concern being the centre of midfield, which got overran in the second half.

Corry Evans and Dan Neil started very well, and the latter’s range of passing could give a real edge to the team this season. The concern is whether Evans can manage the pace of this league for longer than an hour, and Luke O’Nien was clumsy at best when he came on. With Carl Winchester and Jay Matete both not making the matchday squad last time out, it begs whether the club are looking to bring in a more physical option this month.

Everton loanee Ellis Simms has a better chance of featuring after a full week of training behind him, which could be a real asset for the lads in terms of managing the game late on.

We know Neil will have the team well-prepped for this one, that’s one thing we get with a head coach so meticulous and confident in his organisation of the side. Pace of the game will be high on the agenda this week, as although we all love a fast start, they’ll need to a tempo they can sustain for the full 90.

I’m backing the lads to come away with at least a point and make that long journey back sweeter than those fizzy Thatchers apples.

Ha’way the Lads!