Well, everybody, it's finally here. After what currently seems like the longest 13 weeks of our lives, the Premier League - and our beloved Sunderland - returns to action in what promises to be yet another 10 months of elation, despair, and pure drama. After one of the most productive summers in our history and the biggest influx of players in the entire league this window (so far), it is fair to say that the spectacle we are about to witness is one of virtually unknown measures.
Of the side that lined up against Tottenham on the last day of 2012/13, only 4 will be expected to start this Saturday; Jack Colback, John O'Shea, Adam Johnson and Sebastian Larsson. Following a tough and integral preseason, Paolo Di Canio now must lead his newly assorted troops into a tough opening day clash against a Fulham side who have had a similarly busy summer.
There could be as many as 9 debutants from a squad which, on face value, contains more quality and depth than the one Martin O'Neill took to arsenal this time 12 months ago. Whether Vito Mannone will get the nod ahead of long-term backup 'keeper Keiren Westwood is anybody's guess, after rotation between the two during the warm-up games. New signing Ondrej Celustka may start at right back, as Craig Gardner continues to serve his three game suspension. Wes Brown missed the final friendly in Denmark with a small knock, so whether Di Canio will want to risk a man who missed a good 56 games of premier league football is an issue for the staff. Ji Dong-Won, the enigmatic South Korean, also succumbed to injury during the preseason programme and his participation is unknown, likewise his future. A new central midfielder, preferably English in the words of Di Canio, could arrive before the fixture but whether this would be in time for the dreaded 2-day clearance is, like so many other factors, unknown to us. Colback will start in his now familiar left back role, whilst Jozy Altidore is a shoe-in to deputise for the injured Steven Fletcher at centre forward. Lee Cattermole is another likely absentee due to an injury picked up for the development squad.
Fulham themselves have had a summer of much change. Whilst there have not been wholesale changes in the playing staff at Craven Cottage, owner and club hero Mohamad Al-Fayed has sold his beloved club to successful American businessmen Shahid Khan. Cattermole and Phil Bardsley's names have been credited regularly as being targets, but nothing seems to have materialised as of yet. Two notable newcomers are loanee Adel Taarabt and Maarten Stekelenburg. Whilst the Dutch 'keeper will serve as replacement to Chelsea's marque signing - the youthful Mark Schwarzer - Taarabt adds pace and guile to a team known for their slow build-up play.
What They Think:
We asked Andrew from Fulham blog site Cottagers Confidential for his view on the fixture;
Fulham have had a fairly quiet transfer window (other than being bought by a Pakistani-American Billionare). The players we have brought in IMHO have improved the squad greatly however. The CDM position has been improved a lot by Derek Boateng. He's not world class, but you don't have to be when you are replacing Chris Baird and Steve Sidwell. Maarten Stekelenburg should be an improvement over Schwarzer. He's only 30, and let’s not forget that he started in the last World Cup Final. The team also brought in Fernando Amorebieta to pair with Brede Hangeland in central defence. Though fans really want a creative midfielder and another striker, scoring goals wasn't the biggest problem at the club last year. Other than West Brom, Fulham scored more goals than all the other mid table clubs. It was conceding that was the problem. Which makes the three defensive players make much more sense.
Fulham are going to play a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1/4-3-3 (depending on how you look at it). I think the back four would be (from right to left) Sascha Reither, Fernando Amorebieta, Brede Hangeland, Kieran Richardson. The central midfield would be Steve Sidwell and Derek Boateng. Then it gets interesting. I think Jol would prefer Ashkan Dejagah on the right, Bryan Ruiz in the middle, and Adel Taarabt on the left. The problem is that Bryan Ruiz is playing a midweek friendly a few thousand miles away and Adel Taarabt just joined the team and is not yet match fit. Alex Kacaniklic also would normally be an option on the left, but is out due to injury. So I'm not really sure what line-up Jol is going to run out.
Normally, Fulham aren’t very impressive on the road but last season Fulham were actually better on the road then they had been in prior years. They scored 10 more goals away than they had in 2011/12 and only gave up 5 more. They also almost had a result at Old Trafford, impressive draws at the Emirates and Stamford Bridge, and were able to beat Spurs at White Hart Lane. That being said, I don't see Fulham scoring a lot of goals in this match. They haven't done so in the pre-season, and the squad isn't totally set yet. I also don't seem them conceding very many. So I'd probably guess a 1-1 draw for the result on Saturday.
Danger man: Dimitar Berbatov
I doubt that you need an introduction as of such to the Bulgarian striker, after seven impeccable seasons in the Premier League. His 15 Premier League goals last season were crucial in Fulham's progress, and the man who won the 2011 Barclays golden boot is without doubt the main attacking outlet in Jol's side. A battle with his old Manchester United team mate O'Shea could be key to the outcome of the game as two ageing but by no means tiring veterans of the Premier League come head to head as key members of their respective sides. Berbatov's relaxed, 'luxury' style of play means it is not the pace but the nous of his movement which makes him a difficult man to keep tabs on. Making sure his space is limited in the box is key for us if we hope to take three points.
Sunderland (4-2-2): Westwood/Mannone; Celustka, O'shea, Diakité, Colback; Larsson, Cabral; Johnson, Giaccherini; Sessegnon, Altidore.
Fulham (4-4-1-1): Stekelenburg; Riether, Senderos, Hangeland, Richardson; Dejagah, Sidwell, Boateng, Taarabt; Ruiz; Berbatov
With this the only home game before Christmas in which you'd bet on us, it's vital that three points are secured by Di Canio's men. After plenty of time for the majority of the squad to get to know one another, we approach the first game well prepared and much improved. I wouldn't expect a cracking game but I am confident of a win.
Sunderland 1-0 Fulham