Sunderland vs. Fulham: Key Premier League Battles to Watch

Nick AkermanFeatured ColumnistAugust 16, 2013

SO KON PO, HONG KONG - JULY 24:  Jozy Altidore of Sunderland reacts during the Barclays Asia Trophy Semi Final match between Tottenham Hotspur and Sunderland at Hong Kong Stadium on July 24, 2013 in So Kon Po, Hong Kong.  (Photo by Victor Fraile/Getty Images)
Victor Fraile/Getty Images

The Stadium of Light will see a number of key battles during Sunderland’s Premier League opener with Fulham. Both sides have worked extensively across the summer to improve their squads and will be eyeing three points at the first attempt.

Which key battles will define the game? Who will come out on top: Sunderland's Paolo Di Canio or Fulham's Martin Jol? Let’s consider exactly that.

Sunderland's Interchanging Attack vs. Fulham’s Powerful Defence

Paolo Di Canio has worked diligently to stamp his authority into a struggling Sunderland squad. The team have rarely played free-flowing, attack-minded football across the last few years, but the Italian boss is looking to change that.

Jozy Altidore enters the Premier League season in fine form. His hat-trick during USA’s 4-3 comeback win over Bosnia and Herzegovina is the perfect confidence booster ahead of the campaign.

Expect the battling forward to lead the line with Emanuele Giaccherini and Adam Johnson in a front three that possesses real incision. With Stephane Sessegnon sitting behind Altidore, the Black Cats finally have a threat that will make knees tremble.

Fulham’s new-look defence has to hit the ground running on opening day. The commanding abilities of Brede Hangeland will be vital to the London club’s success in the north of England. Hangeland’s relationship with new signing Fernando Amorebieta is crucial. Although John Arne Riise and Sascha Riether are used to the Premier League threat, Amorebieta needs to settle immediately in the Cottagers’ back four.

Both Hangeland and Amorebieta are immensely powerful centre-backs. They can suffocate Altidore’s space if the American forward doesn’t receive immediate support. Giaccherini and Johnson must pull the Fulham defence apart with speedy runs up the pitch and need to deliver an array of balls towards the box.

As a route to Fulham’s goal, the central battle is going to be vital.

Can John O’Shea halt Dimitar Berbatov?

Former Manchester United teammates John O’Shea and Dimitar Berbatov both have key roles to play in this encounter.

Much like the aforementioned Hangeland, O’Shea is Sunderland’s dictator at the back. He will shout his men into position, berate any mistakes and ensure Di Canio’s tactics are adhered to. Berbatov is Fulham’s most likely route to goal, and it’s O’Shea who needs to halt him.

This won’t be a lively battle.

Unlike relentless energy at the other end, Berbatov is more likely to stroll around the area than blitz through it. O’Shea needs to get in his face, stop the Bulgarian from turning on the ball and bringing others into play. Berbatov is best when he gets time to control, look up and think about his next move. If O’Shea needs to nip at Berbatov’s heels and cynically rough him up to get a decent result, Di Canio won’t be disappointed.

A Tale of Two New Teams

As estimated by John Ley of The Telegraph, around nine new players could make their competitive debut in this match. Such a dramatic change is likely to make this battle immensely exciting, especially when you consider each of the new talents will be itching to make an impression.

While this result is unlikely to shape either side’s season, both Di Canio and Jol should take the opportunity to lay out the foundations for the road ahead. With players such as Cabral and Derek Boating lining up against each other in midfield, transitional play needs to be thoughtful and accurate.

Fitness won’t be up to scratch at this stage in the season, so players need to ensure they aren’t creating additional work for their teammates.

With so many new signings readying themselves to appear, it’s likely we’ll witness the birth of an instant hero. Can Di Canio open the season with a morale-boosting win in front of the home crowd, or will Jol spoil his progress?

Let me know in the comments section below and be sure to discuss the game with me on Twitter: