Sunderland heading up the EPL table.
Firmly involved in a relegation battle before Christmas, five wins in the last eight EPL games have resulted in Sunderland looking up the table rather than anxiously over their shoulders. So, with the January transfer window about to close shut, what does the rest of the season hold?
The turnaround in form, coupled with the signings of midfielder Alfred N’Diaye from Busaspor and defender Kader Mangane on loan from Al-Hilal this month, has given renewed optimism at the Stadium of Light.
Pressure has eased on manager Martin O’Neill, and he is back to enjoying the messiah-like status that he had when taking over from Steve Bruce more than a year ago.
O’Neill’s activity in the transfer market is unlikely to have stopped yet with Swansea City forward Danny Graham among those strongly linked with a move to the Stadium of Light (via the Newcastle Chronicle) along with Argentine forward Mauro Zarate on a loan deal from Lazio and Barnsley’s teenage full-back John Stones.
The Sunderland squad is now beginning to have more of O’Neill’s influence about it with summer signings Steven Fletcher and Danny Rose, who is on loan from Tottenham, the undoubted stars of the season to date.
In addition, England winger Adam Johnson, another to arrive before the start of the current campaign, is beginning to become the key player the red and white faithful expected when he joined from Premier League champions Manchester City.
N’Diaye has impressed in equal measure too in his two appearances following his move from Bursaspor in Turkey. The first came as a late substitute, when he should really have scored with his first touch in English football, and the second when catching the eye in victory over Wigan Athletic.
The decks have been cleared in some respect too. Republic of Ireland midfielder David Meyler has turned a loan spell at the Bruce-managed Hull City into a permanent move, and England star Fraizer Campbell has joined another Championship club, Cardiff City. Ji Dong-Won, meanwhile, has been sent to Bundesliga strugglers Augsburg on loan.
The sum of all that is the weakening of the Steve Bruce connection and the creation of a team more in fitting with O’Neill’s wanting.
It is no surprise that the form has picked up as a result of O’Neill’s strengthening of the squad rather than rely on the same 11 players as he had to last season. It isn’t a case anymore that Sunderland do not score if Fletcher fails to find the net.
Even though the recent results have moved Sunderland nine points clear of the relegation zone, there is still the need to keep the drop firmly in the mind until the all-important 40-point total is surpassed. But it should be a case of onwards and upwards.
With Johnson beginning to play a more influential role and less of a reliance of the goals of Fletcher, who at one stage earlier in the season was Sunderland’s only goalscorer in the EPL, a finish in the top half of the table is not beyond the club.
Sunderland have finish in the top-10 of the EPL table once in the last five seasons, that coming in 2010/11 when they finished 10th overall. With more improvement still to come, bank on O’Neill’s team at least equalling that this time around.