Sunderland host Manchester United in Saturday’s early kick-off as the Premier League resumes for the home straight and Martin O’Neill must be wondering how his season has managed to get even worse when his team haven’t kicked a ball for two weeks.
Because that is exactly what has happened to the Black Cats: as if a run of seven games without a win wasn’t bad enough, Sunderland will now have to face the remainder of their relegation battle without top scorer Steven Fletcher, who was injured while on international duty for Scotland last week.
O’Neill had enough to worry about already – not least the slim four-point advantage over third-bottom Wigan Athletic, who have a game in hand – without losing the only player that seems capable of getting a goal for his side.
Fletcher has scored 11 of Sunderland’s 33 league goals this term and without the £12 million man, O’Neill will be relying on Danny Graham and Connor Wickham to fill the void.
Both the £5 million January signing from Swansea City and the England Under-21 international have failed to score a league goal for Sunderland this season and the Wearsiders’ increasingly precious position at the bottom of the table is looking even more uncertain.
It has been a dire season for the Stadium of Light faithful and relegation is a real possibility for a team that has seemed strangely uninspired all campaign, lacking in quality in all areas of the pitch.
Worryingly, their recent results confirm this, and Sunderland’s performances are dipping at exactly the wrong moment.
A narrow loss to Arsenal is excusable, but to take just three points from games with Swansea, Reading, West Brom, Fulham, QPR and Norwich City is about as clear relegation form as you are ever going to see and there is nothing about Sunderland that makes you confident they can arrest the slide.
And when you’re in the middle of such a horrid run, the last team you want coming to town is Manchester United and the champions-elect look set to prolong O’Neill’s misery.
United are 31/50 to pick up the points, and even if I am wary of an odds-on away shout, I’ll be looking to get value on a win for the visitors rather than the 17/4 on Sunderland or the 14/5 about the draw.
The way to do that is to take the 33/20 that Manchester United win without conceding a goal – something that has happened ten times in the league this season, including in each of their last five matches.
A free £20 bet, which is available to anyone registering with bwin today, on such an outcome would return a solid £53 if successful.
I am not expecting a vintage performance from Sir Alex Ferguson’s men – the combination of an early kick-off post-international break and the prospect of Monday’s FA Cup quarter-final replay with Chelsea will see to that – but they can make sure, as happens so often, that they do enough to win the match.
United almost always do the business against teams in the bottom half and their record of 15 wins from 16 games against the division’s lesser lights is typically excellent.
Even if Ferguson makes changes with Stamford Bridge in mind, and I’m sure he will, they are unlikely to be defensive ones and whoever the Scot picks up front will still be more than capable of causing problems for a Sunderland rearguard that has kept just one clean sheet in ten games.
The even better news for the visitors is that those who get the nod at the back might not get an easier match all season.
United have put their pre-Christmas defensive wobbles behind them and they will be confident of keeping a sixth clean sheet in a row against a Fletcher-less attack.
O’Neill’s side have scored just six goals in their last seven games, three of which came courtesy of Craig Gardner penalties, as their lack of creativity threatens to plunge them into the relegation mire.
Sunderland have not scored in three of their last five home games, none of which were won, and besides, they just can’t score against United full stop.
The Black Cats have drawn nine blanks in the last 12 meetings between the sides, including in five of the last six, and without Fletcher, I can’t see how this limited group of players can hurt the runaway leaders.
Not when their record against the better teams is so poor: only the bottom three have taken fewer points than O’Neill’s men against the sides in the top half of the table.
Even with the slight distraction of Monday, I don’t see United slipping up against a side in such disarray and you should get on the 33/20 they win to nil for the 11th time this season at the Stadium of Light.