Can Martin O'Neill inspire Sunderland into a top 6 challenge?

Last Season: 13th

In: Carlos Cuellar (free transfer, Aston Villa)

Out: Michael Turner (£1.6m, Norwich City), Asamoah Gyan (£6.6m, Al-Ain), Craig Gordan (released), George McCartney (free transfer, West Ham United), Cristian Riveros (£264,000, Kayserispor)

If they were an Olympian: Mark Cavendish. Has everything in place to be a real Olympic force yet for any number of reasons it has never quite happened, still has time to prove the doubters wrong.

You can basically break last season down into 3 separate campaigns for Sunderland; the first ended when Steve Bruce was sacked for dragging the club into a relegation battle, in came Martin O'Neill and when Sebastian Larsson curled in a fine free kick in the last minute to beat Blackburn in O'Neill's first game the second part had begun, the third stage of the season commenced when it became clear that Sunderland were perfectly safe from the threat of relegation and were not going to challenge for a top 8 position and the players promptly went on holiday, ending the season pretty poorly.

If Sunderland can replicate the middle part of last season then the club could be in for a really special season. After O'Neill came in he managed to galvanise a squad that had been drifting under Steve Bruce and the Northern Irishman took them on a fantastic run of results. There was nothing particularly revolutionary about what O'Neill did once he took over, he simply seemed to be able to get more out of an under-performing squad. He did bring in James McClean who turned out to be an absolute revelation and made use of players that Bruce had rather bizarrely signed and then chosen not to use. Both Craig Gardner and David Vaughan were examples of this, and they offered goals and energy in midfield, something that Bruce's team had certainly lacked.

Up-front O'Neill relied heavily on Stephane Sessegnon, who reveled in a lone striker role. Whether the previously inconsistent Beninese can produce over the course of a season is a massive question as Sunderland are not blessed with fantastic striking options. Nicklas Bendtner has returned to Arsenal and O'Neill showed no great desire to keep the temperamental Dane, whilst Connor Wickham, Frazier Campbell and Ji Dong-Wang are far from proven quality. Unless O'Neill brings in another striker, it seems likely that Sunderland will line up with a five man midfield looking to support Sessegnon. The club are continuing their pursuit of Steven Fletcher and are rumored to have made a bid in excess of £12m which is extortionate in the extreme, but this in itself shows the relative weakness of the Sunderland squad.

The fixture computer has not been too harsh on Sunderland, despite traveling to Arsenal on the first day of the season. O'Neill has a pretty good record against Arsenal and few would back against Sunderland getting a result at the Emirates. After that they face Reading, Swansea, Liverpool, West Ham and Wigan. These are all eminently winnable games and a good start to the season would give the squad huge confidence as they go into a very difficult autumnal period. The depth of the squad is certainly a concern but at Villa O'Neill often demonstrated his unwillingness to rotate his squad too much, relying heavily on a core of 13-14 players.

It is difficult to predict what Sunderland will do this season, such was their inconsistency last term. Some will feel that O'Neill will not be able to sustain the initial burst his arrival induced, whilst others will feel that he could lead Sunderland to a top 8 finish. Realistically the most logical answer lies somewhere in between and although this blog has Sunderland finishing 13th, really it could be anywhere in mid table.

Predicted Finish: 13th

Key Man: Stephane Sessegnon. As illustrated above the Black Cats relied heavily on the man from Benin for goals and creativity. Were he to depart or get injured then it would place a heavy strain on the squad.

Underrated: David Vaughan. After impressing with Blackpool, Steve Bruce signed the Welsh international on a free but barely used him. After scoring in O'Neill's first game in charge, Vaughan remained a key presence and his tough tackling and range of passing make him an important cog in Sunderland's midfield. Has a fantastic left foot as well.

Watch out for: Jack Colback. Whilst James McClean was the centre of attention last term for his rapid rise to prominence, local lad Jack Colback quietly went about his business and was equally impressive. Nominally a central midfielder, Colback performed well in a variety of positions and his tidy passing and hard work will see him remain a key man for Martin O'Neill.

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