Premier League: Sunderland v Man City

Martin O'Neill

Martin O’Neill: improvement

Sunderland will be hoping to build on two wins in their last three matches when they entertain Man City at the Stadium of Light on Boxing Day (3pm GMT).

The Mackems have endured a tough first half of the season and are 15th in the table with 19 points from their 18 matches to date, just four clear of the relegation zone.

There have, however, been some signs of improvement in recent weeks. Sunderland won just two of their first 15 matches, but have now won two of their last three. The second of those was Saturday’s 1-0 victory away to fellow strugglers Southampton.

Sunderland took the lead just before half time and rarely looked likely to relinquish their advantage thereafter. Carlos Cuellar superbly marshalled a back line who defended stoutly and were equal to anything an under-par Southampton could muster.

It was performance bereft of invention but packed with grit and determination, characteristics that should fare Martin O’Neill’s side well in the second half of the campaign.

Steven Fletcher was again Sunderland’s scorer, taking his tally to eight since his £12 million move from Wolverhampton Wanderers in the summer. He alone has scored 42% of Sunderland’s league goals and without his precise finishing they would be in real trouble.

O’Neill will know that his side cannot continue to rely solely on Fletcher for goals if they hope to put some distance between themselves and the drop zone. Sunderland had 15 different scorers last season and the likes of Stephane Sessegnon, Adam Johnson and James McClean need to start delivering on a more regular basis this time around.

Sunderland are also crying out for more dynamism in the centre of midfield, a deficiency that should be among O’Neill’s priorities to correct in the January transfer window.

Man City are a full 20 points and 13 places better off than Sunderland as we head in the final week of 2012, but are still four points behind their local rivals United at the Premier League’s summit.

They have made a solid start to their title defence but there is certainly room for improvement in the second half of the season, especially in the goal scoring department. This was acknowledged by Roberto Mancini in the wake of Saturday’s 1-0 win at home to bottom club Reading.

City were ruthless at times last season, scoring 93 goals over the course of the campaign at a rate of 2.45 per match. This time around that figure has been reduced to an average of 1.89 per match. If no improvement is forthcoming that would lead to City scoring somewhere in the region of 21 less goals than last season – a significant decrease.

It was perhaps inevitable that opposition clubs would seek to play more defensively against City this season and that opposition managers would begin to discover more effective ways to lessen their attacking threat. But Mancini is paid a handsome salary to circumvent such issues. Indeed his early-season experimentation with a back three probably had this in mind and he needs to find solutions sooner rather than later.

Mancini has clearly looked to make his side better in possession – summer arrivals Javi Garcia and Matija Nastasic are both more comfortable on the ball than the previous occupants of their respective positions. However greater control of the ball is yet to benefit his side offensively or defensively – as well as scoring less than last season, City are also conceding marginally more.

Despite performances of a lesser quality, City are still accumulating points at a rate that almost any other club in the division would be more than happy with. It is clear that the last-gasp manner in which they won last season’s title has imbued the squad with a steadfast belief in their ability to get a result.

The Citizens have scored winning goals in the last ten minutes of five matches this season, including the win over Reading at the weekend, and also scored an 80th minute equaliser in a 2-2 draw with Liverpool in late August. This determination to push through and get a result regardless of the performance is reminiscent of their neighbours United and is likely to see City come through the hectic festive period still very much in the title race.

Sunderland v Man City Betting Tips

Sunderland secured a famous victory with an injury time winner in the equivalent fixture last season, but were comfortably swept aside 3-0 when these two sides met at the Etihad back in the first week of October.

As in that victory last season, O’Neill’s men will look to stifle City’s attacks and hope for opportunities on the counter attack. They were incredibly fortunate in that match and as lightning rarely strikes twice we fancy City to emerge victorious from what is likely to be a fairly dour, low-scoring encounter.