Their preseason results have done little to inspire Mackem fans, either: their first four preseason friendlies reaped just one victory and three goals – they all came in that once victory, too. The other three games ended in defeat. Although preseason results are meaningless, they have indicated areas that deserve attention and warrant improvement – the unsuccessful attempt to secure the services of Fletcher illustrates this. O’Neill remains unfazed, however: “I’ve been involved in preseasons where we have won every game and then struggled when the league started, and I’ve seen pre-seasons where we couldn’t win a match and then did well when the season got under way.”
Their two friendlies since that point, against Championship duo Derby and Leicester, read no better. Derby equalised in the last moments to cancel out James McClean’s opener and Leicester defeated O’Neill’s side 1-0. It leaves Sunderland with one win in their six preseason friendlies, and just four goals scored. Worryingly, 4 games were goalless from Sunderland’s point of view – that’s 66% of games Sunderland failed to score in. Last season they failed to score in just 34%. If the loss of Nicklas Bendtner as he returned to Arsenal after his loan wasn’t enough to encourage Sunderland to buy a striker, that stat is. They currently have Frazier Campbell, Connor Wickham and Dong-won Ji. They scored just five goals between them last season.
Despite failing to create any real fervour in their preseason campaign, Sunderland do have the ability to achieve a top ten finish. Martin O’Neill is undoubtedly a large factor in this, currently, rather bold looking statement. When at Aston Villa, the Northern Irish manager finished 11th in his first season in charge and then recorded three consecutive 6th place finishes. As the season past was already 13 games long when O’Neill took charge of Sunderland it is unfair to compare his debut season with The Mackems to that of Villa: however, if you extrapolate O’Neill’s win ratio (he won 9 games in 25) over the course of 38 games, he could have potentially bettered an 11th place finish with Sunderland.
All this gives weight to the prediction of Sunderland having the potential to break into the top ten: or in other words, what Sunderland expected to achieve last season – with Steve Bruce, also. Any higher seems incredibly unlikely and a repeat of a top seven finish, like those O’Neill secured with Aston Villa, are some way off at current. The likes of Liverpool, Newcastle and Everton seem too strong for Sunderland to compete with over the course of a season and a 9th place finish seems an appropriate prediction for The Mackems.
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