Pack your bags and buckle up. Sunderland are on the road this weekend and face Burton Albion. Can the Black Cats continue their burgeoning romance with League One? Let's have a look.
What's the story so far
Jack Ross continues to direct his players with envious efficiency. That he's managed to assemble an entirely new squad combined with a few gems from the ashes of the Ellis Short era (Lee Cattermole a gem? Are we in the twilight zone?) is astounding. The challenges keep coming but Ross and his men are rising to the occasion time after time.
The aim is to win every game and this Saturdays trip to Burton offers a chance to further the promotion charge. It will be a different type of pressure at the Pirelli Stadium but the aim remains the same. Another sold out away following will be in attendance to add to the cause, but it will be nowhere near the same atmosphere as the 30,000 crowds turning up to home fixtures. No doubt the meticulous nature of Ross and his coaching staff will have the lads ready.
Sunderland were once again left to settle with a point. This time Joey Barton's Fleetwood Town were the ones to score in the first 15 minutes and force Sunderland to regroup. The focus in training will surely have been on defending. Defending crosses and set pieces that have proved an achilles heel for the Black Cats time and again in games so far.
Life in League One hasnt been gentle for Burton, losing four out of their opening seven games. The son of the great Brian Clough, Nigel, has overseen a faltering start to the season that sees them sitting 17th in the table. They drew with Accrington Stanley last weekend, succumbing to a late Billy Kee penalty and it seems as though Burton are still looking to spark their season into life.
Ross has been speaking about teams raising their game when Sunderland are in town, a scalp no one's managed to claim so far.
“We expect the same as we have done in every game, home or away this season,”
“A team that is desperate to try and beat us, we’ve seen that in every match we’ve played so far, and I imagine Saturday will be the same.”
And on starting games poorly;
“We are acutely aware that if we started games better through the course of the season, we would be in an even better position than we’re in.
“We need to deal with the challenges we face in that opening period and we’ve seen that already, but we don’t shy away from it.
Brewers boss Clough expects Sunderland to be challenging for promotion come the end of the season. He also believes that the tremendous support from the red and white army makes a difference.
“Quite a few of the leagues are bit topsy-turvy at the moment but I don’t think League One is. The top four will probably be the top four and the automatic promotion will come from that group. Portsmouth, Peterborough, Sunderland and Barnsley look the strongest teams in the league and everyone else is trying to play catch up.
“I don’t think anyone doubted that Sunderland would be up there – a strong squad, 30,000 people at home. It takes us ten home games to do that, so you see the sort of difference in revenues there. They will fill the away end as their support is never in doubt.
What could go down
Burton have a number of injury concerns while Jack Ross's squad looks healthier by the week. The search for the Black Cats best IX goes on however.
Burton struggle against pace and their back four don't particularly like men getting in behind. Enter our young teenage sensation Josh Maja, his pace and trickery will cause problems all day and if he's playing alongside his big new friend Charlie Wyke he should be even more dangerous. Expect Sunderland to play out through the wings and look to stretch the Burton defence. This should open holes for Maja to glide into or Wyke to charge through. With McGeouch carrying a knock he might be rested which would open the door for a little more dynamism in the midfield.
Burton on the other hand play a much more direct style of football. They like a long ball or two and will look to bully a back four in the air. Their goal against Accrington Stanley came from a number of headers, Burton winning the aerial battle so Scott Fraser could control and finish smartly. If Baldwin and whoever is chosen to line up alongside him get caught napping then we'll need more heroics from stopper Jon McLaughlin to keep Sunderland in the game. Liam Boyce is the main danger man with four goals so far, Sunderland fans won't remember him fondly. It was Boyce and former black cats striker Darren Bent that scored for Burton against Sunderland last season, the last nail in the coffin which confirmed relegation to the third tier.
I'd expect us to have too much for Burton, but everyone turns up for a Sunderland game like Popeye on spinach. But with competition hotting up for first team places and players having another week to get to know eachother better, Sunderland should pull through. I'm going to be greedy again and plump for at least two goals scored. If Baldwin can keep his partner in decent positions during set pieces another clean sheet could also be a possibility.
Ha'way the lads!