When friends become enemies. It’s something of a running theme for tomorrow’s visit to Sunderland as City aim for a first win for ages and a first away win for …. ever, really. You could throw in the stats if you so wished (it’s five Premier League games without a win; 19 without an away win) but there is something much more urgent about City’s form that mere numbers only manage to dilute. And as we troop up to the Stadium of Light, one feels like a score or two on a personal note need settling too.
City have three ex-Sunderland players in the current starting XI, Sunderland currently have two ex-Tigers in theirs (albeit their two were only loanees for City). Above all, however, there is the spectre of a returning, slightly scorned former Sunderland manager. Steve Bruce had a shocking closing spell in charge on Wearside before getting the boot, with his reputation so tarnished that he was out of work for over a year before his appointment at the KC. While he is generous and astute enough to play down the significance, stating he has never been back to Sunderland since they gave him his cards and (of course) it’s all such a long time ago, one can’t help but feel he really wants to turn his old employees over on Saturday.
He won’t be alone. Ahmed Elmohamady never cut it with the Sunderland faithful, David Meyler was peripheral and Paul McShane is regarded as one of their many joke players of the recent past, and all of them will be mad keen to show their true worth as Premier League performers. All three are likely to start the game too, making this very spicy of fixtures even spicier. Throw in Vito Mannone, who was excellent when he played for City, and Jozy Altidore, who wasn’t, and the number of poachers turned gamekeepers is remarkably high.
The game will be a real old test for City. Sunderland are on form, having climbed out of the bottom three under Gus Poyet and reached the League Cup final. However, they are still susceptible in defence and with Altidore up front instead of the much more proven Steven Fletcher, are having to find their goals from more unorthodox routes. Adam Johnson, touted for an England recall, is currently in his best form since joining the club and with Roy Hodgson in attendance, the time is right for City to also impress. The game is always hot-tempered – there have been six red cards in the last seven meetings between these two – and has had its emotional days too, such as Michael Turner’s (temporarily) scoring debut for the Mackems against City three days after leaving one club for the other.
Bruce has no new injury worries but will be thrilled that Sone Aluko sparkled for the stiffs for a whole hour in midweek and can take a place on the bench. Steve Harper continues in goal and will be guaranteed a hostile anti-Geordie welcome from the hosts that may almost match that reserved for the City boss himself. George Boyd may feel he has a strong claim to begin the game but it feels likely that Bruce won’t alter the starting XI that drew with Spurs last week beyond a recall for Jake Livermore. Sunderland haven’t got Fletcher due to an Achilles injury but otherwise also have no further injury concerns.
A win for City will complete a first Premier League double since beating Fulham in March 2009 and also acquire the first ever points at the Stadium of Light, having lost on all three previous occasions going back to 2006/7. Sunderland are priced at 11/10 to win, with City at 11/4 and the draw set at 9/4. Tyne and Wear has been the only happy hunter for City this season in the Premier League, so having done the Tyne, there’s just 50% of it left to conquer.