Sunderland face Stoke City at the Stadium of Light this weekend. The much-anticipated return of Alex Neil to Wearside for the first time since he left has been at the forefront of the minds of fans and the media alike. However, there is more than the Alex Neil return show going on. Three vital points are at stake with both clubs wanting the win come full-time.
Sunderland vs Stoke City Preview
Alex Neil Returns: From Sunderland Hero to Sunderland Zero
The way Alex Neil left Sunderland earlier this season left a bitter taste in the mouths of fans and rightly so. He was a man the fans loved having taken over as head coach in February 2022 and guided them back to the Championship for the first time in several years following a memorable play-off final win at Wembley Stadium.
The Black Cats were finally on the up and began the new season well; however, Alex Neil decided to leave when Stoke City offered him their vacant manager job. 24 hours before a home game against Norwich City, Neil left Sunderland’s training ground to begin talks with Stoke.
The next day while still employed by the Black Cats he was spotted watching Stoke play away at Blackburn Rovers all while his current team played. Soon after, it was confirmed that Neil had departed and since then fans and the media have had one eye on this fixture.
Sunderland, under Tony Mowbray, have stayed in and around the playoff positions while Stoke under Neil’s guidance have struggled for much of the campaign. Fans of City have been less than impressed by Neil and he is under increasing pressure from sections of their supporters.
An unfavourable welcome is therefore expected for Alex Neil when he makes an appearance. Yes, he guided the team back to the Championship, something which fans are grateful for and gave them some memorable moments; however, the first chance he got he left without hesitation and in a way that did not go down well with the club or the fans.
The Game is More Important Than Alex Neil’s Return
However, this game is more important than the Alex Neil returns show. Once the hostilities have died down, there is a football match to be played. Sunderland, having collected just one point from their last three games will want to get back to winning ways. A victory would put the Black Cats back into contention for a playoff place, a position, fans would have delighted with at the beginning of the season. Their young team have performed above expectations for much of the season; however, fatigue and injuries are beginning to take their toll and it’s up to Tony Mowbray to manage his team to the best of his abilities in an attempt to finish the season as high as possible.
Alex Neil’s side have struggled for much of the season but are above the relegation places. Victory here would make their position in the table and Neil’s job much more comfortable.
Sunderland Must Find a Way to Score More Goals
Since Ross Stewart was ruled out for the rest of the season, Tony Mowbray has had just one striker to call upon. Joe Gelhardt, on loan from Leeds United, has so far struggled to adapt to Sunderland’s style and vice versa. In his recent press conference, Mowbray spoke about the difficulties of having just one type of striker at his disposal. He said: “I’ve always said it’s very difficult to change the natural habits of footballers.
“From being a very small kid they have done the same thing. They have either been a dribbler, or a physical player who likes to run without the ball, or a great passer.
“It’s very difficult to change the habits in a short period of time because the players will do what they do.
“We have a lot of technical footballers who like the ball to feet, like to manipulate it and play one-twos. In my mind, we haven’t quite got the balance to benefit from the really technical players that we’ve got.
“If I go back to Ross Stewart, Ross Stewart likes to run in the space behind defences, he wants to be slipped in into the gap behind the centre-halves and smash it in the net
“At the moment in my mind, we don’t have enough players who want to run without the ball in behind the opposition.”
Sunderland have no new fresh injury worries; however, fullback Dennis Cirkin is likely to be missing as he recovers from the concussion he suffered at the hands of Millwall’s goalkeeper while scoring.
Tony Mowbray gave an update on Cirkin’s condition ahead of Saturday’s game. He said: “He’s still a little bit fuzzy, he doesn’t feel fully right and so at this moment, he might join in bits of non-contact training but nothing where he’s going to challenge for headers or go into tackles. He feels fine within himself but he’s not 100% and he has to be before he can be put back in.”
Lynden Gooch is close to a full recovery but is not expected to be involved until at least the away fixture at Norwich City.
Alex Neil could have Ben Pearson available for selection after he missed out on the defeat to Brighton in midweek due to cramp. 40-year-old defender Phil Jagielka will also be assessed having also missed the FA Cup tie.
Coventry City (A) – 2-1 defeat
Rotherham United (A) – 2-1 defeat
Bristol City (H) – 1-1 draw
Queens Park Rangers (A) – 3-0 win
Reading (H) – 1-0 win
Brighton & Hove Albion (H) – 1-0 defeat
Millwall (H) – 1-0 defeat
Swansea City (A) – 3-1 win
Blackpool (A) – 1-0 defeat
Huddersfield Town (H) – 3-0 win
Odds are from Sky Bet and are correct as of 3rd March
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