Spare a thought for Sunderland fans. Why? Because as the Black Cats prepare to welcome local rivals Middlesbrough in the Capital One Cup this evening, a rather damning statistic has been doing the rounds.
Supporters of the Wearsiders have witnessed a paltry 12 shots on target in the first eight Premier League games of the new season and Steven Fletcher remains their only top-flight scorer thus far. Things are so bad that even Demba Ba has scored more goals for Sunderland than anyone other than the Scot.
This writer has always been a fan of Martin O’Neill’s managerial skills but it is impossible to overlook the fact that Sunderland have won just one of their last 16 league matches in a run stretching back to last season – and even that was only a home win over Wigan Athletic.
The expected rise under the guidance of the Northern Irishman has not yet fully materialised and their lack of attacking menace is made all the more confusing by the supply line for Fletcher looking, on paper at least, made to measure.
On the flanks, James McClean has not scaled the heights of last season and Boro old boy Adam Johnson is still finding his feet after his move from Manchester City, while chief playmaker Stephane Sessegnon has been in wretched form.
The latter was left out of Saturday’s goalless draw at Stoke – a result we correctly predicted, I should add – and may well return this evening for the visit of Tony Mowbray’s men, who are sitting pretty in third place in the Championship after their weekend win over Bolton.
From a punting perspective, I generally like keeping an eye on O’Neill’s teams in the Capital One Cup as he won this competition twice as player with Nottingham Forest and then twice as a manager with Leicester City.
O’Neill is smart enough to know that this is perhaps his best opportunity to end Sunderland’s trophy drought, which stretches back to 1973, and he can normally be relied upon to send out his strongest possible team.
As a result, the bookies are often caught off-guard, as they were when offering the Black Cats at a big 11/10 to get past MK Dons in the previous round – a price I implored bwinbetting readers to take at the time.
However, they are not giving anything away for this evening’s clash, with the hosts installed as strong 18/25 favourites, while the draw is at 13/5 and a Boro win is available at 7/2.
Of course, the two sides met in the fourth round of last year’s FA Cup and there was little to choose between them, with an extra-time goal from Sessegnon eventually sending Sunderland through in a replay at the Riverside.
Boro were more than good value for the 1-1 draw they secured at the Stadium of Light in the first encounter and considering their performances this season, there is a case to be made that they are now a stronger team.
However, a lengthy injury list already featuring Rhys Williams, Kevin Thomson, Julio Arca, Mustapha Carayol, Luke Williams, Curtis Main, Jonathon Woodgate and Lukas Jutkiewicz was stretched further by Marvin Emnes picking up a hamstring complaint in the win over Bolton.
And with on-loan Chelsea midfielder Josh McEachran also ruled out as the Blues do not want him to be cup-tied, Mowbray has been forced to call three youth-team players into his squad to make up the numbers.
This could prove the telling factor tonight – even if O’Neill opts to make a few changes after his side’s exertions at the Britannia Stadium – and it is the main reason to believe Sunderland should get the job done.
But as I alluded to earlier, the odds-on price about Sunderland is not the most appealing, so instead, take the 7/5 that they win a game featuring less than four goals.
It would be a major surprise if the Black Cats scored any more than three, judging by their struggles in front of goal thus far and the fact that seven of their eight league games have contained under 3.5 goals.
A low-scoring win is surely the most likely outcome, but this bet also gives a nod to Boro’s likely strike duo of the powerful Ishmael Miller and arch-poacher Scott McDonald, who could help the visitors score at the Stadium of Light again in a 2-1 defeat.
Punters registering with bwin can claim a free £20 bet and placing this on Sunderland to win a game of no more than three goals would provide returns of £48 if successful.
My only slight concern is the fact that the home line-up could include Lee Cattermole. The Sunderland skipper had me worried when he was shown his seventh career red card against MK Dons, but O’Neill’s men were able to grind out a 2-0 victory on that occasion.
Having completed his three-match suspension and after signing a new four-year contract this week, the former Boro midfielder will probably be straining at the leash to be let loose against his old club.
The Teessiders are unlikely to be as accommodating as the Dons if Cattermole is again given his marching orders following a typically rash tackle or a rush of blood to the head.
But I’ll trust that the 24-year-old can keep his cool and help guide his team one step closer to Wembley – hopefully in a match that produces less than four goals.