Sunderland AFC Preview – Midweek trip will be sternest test of Black Cats’ Championship credentials so far

Jon Lambert takes a look at our hosts Sheffield United ahead of Wednesday's clash

Sunderland travel to Bramall Lane on Wednesday night to face Sheffield United in the Lads first taste of midweek Championship action this term, hoping to build on their unbeaten start. The Blades have already tasted defeat, but will be one of the promotion favourites given their narrow miss in last season’s play-offs, so should prove the lads sternest test to date.

Led by Paul Heckingbottom, who was once with Sunderland as a youngster, the Blades have mostly dabbled in the loan market over the summer, bringing in defender Ciaran Clark from them lot up the road. They’ve also brought in a trio of youngsters in midfielders James McAtee and Tommy Doyle from Manchester City’s endless production line, and Redha Khadra from Brighton.

That being said, money has been spent on Swedish centre back Anel Ahmedhodžić, who arrived at Bramall Lane for £4.05m on a four year contract. Strikers Lys Mousset, Oliver Burke (Werder Bremen) and David McGoldrick (Derby County) are all away from Sheffield United, with the former out on a season long loan to VfL Bochum.

The Blades remain awash with attacking options having Rhian Brewster, Billy Sharp, Ollie McBurnie, Daniel Jebbison and Iliman Ndiaye all able to lead the line. Add that with the brace of goals Sander Burge has already scored, and you have multiple goal threats. Burge is regarded as one of the best midfielders in the division, and with the Norwegian international having Champions League experience, is currently being pursued by AC Milan.

Heckingbottom doesn’t seem completely settled yet on his best side, and as was alluded by Blades fans on WMS’s Monday Pod, Wednesday could be a night to look at new players. The aforementioned Redha Khadra may feature. Khadra is a Germany u21 attacking midfielder who was a product of the much quoted Dortmund model (remember that?!), and with Championship experience having been on loan at Blackburn last season. With Billy Sharp suffering an ankle injury that forced him off against Middlesbrough, Rhian Brewster maybe back up top.

Heckingbottom plays a 3-5-2 formation so this will suit Alex Neil who won’t have to change his style to match the opposition up. Former Lads man John Egan will captain the side in the heart of defence, and in his eighth Championship season shows that maybe this is another player we let go too young. In the QPR preview I failed to mention the goalkeeper, and he turned out to be the player to watch.. well from injury time onwards anyway. So… Wes Foderingham is between the sticks for the Blades, and I can confirm has no career goals to date.

For the Lads they will noticeably be without centre back Dan Ballard who we may not see much before the World Cup break due to the broken foot he sustained last time out. That is the only forced change, and it’ll be interesting to see who Neil sees as the short term replacement. If Saturday is anything to go by then it’s Luke O’Nien, based in playing on the right side of a back three.

On the basis Bailey Wright has a fully functional right foot, I’m surprised he wouldn’t be the more logical replacement, particularly given the partnership he built with Danny Batth last season. Other than that it is likely to be the same with no new arrivals through the door this week so far, as Neil seeks like for like replacements to maintain the current system. Front men Ross Stewart and Ellis Simms (SaS) will look to work the Blades defence ragged, hopefully with some quality supply from Jack Clarke, Dan Neil and Alex Pritchard.

A spirited Sunderland will travel to Sheffield looking for their second away win of the season, but they must learn the lessons from the three games so far. Managing leads, retaining the ball when it matters, and striving for that all important clean sheet. But Bramall Lane has become a bit of a fortress for the Blades having only lost once since the end of October last year, and have already got off to winning ways at home so far. The Blades have an embarrassment of riches up front, but I can’t help thinking the SaS may have the most cash in the bank. Points on the road please. Ha’way the Lads!