x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Dark days for Steve Bruce at Stadium of Light

The course to tranquility will be harder for the Sunderland manager to navigate after losing another star striker.

It is only a month since Sunderland opened the season with a laudable draw at Liverpool. It is, however, a month in which Steve Bruce's side have failed to win, suffered their seventh and eighth defeats in nine games on home soil, been beaten by their local rivals and lost the sole senior striker they owned after the transfer window had closed.

Factor in the rumours, swiftly denied, that Niall Quinn, the chairman, will quit the club, and the reality that pressure on Bruce is increasing, from the stands if not the boardroom, and it amounts to troubled times for Sunderland.

For the second time this year, the spearhead of the attack has engineered his exit.

First Darren Bent, now Asamoah Gyan: these are defections that strike at the Wearsiders' ambitions to establish themselves as regulars in the upper half of the table. Sunderland seems a stepping stone, even if there was some bemusement in England that the Ghanaian's next port of call was Al Ain.

Nevertheless, the move of an unsettled player leaves Bruce with a problem. His three remaining fit forwards - the borrowed Nicklas Bendtner and the youngsters Connor Wickham and Ji Dong-won - have a solitary goal for the club, scored by the South Korean in Saturday's defeat to Chelsea.

It was not witnessed by the thousands of supporters who had left the Stadium of Light, a vote of no confidence in itself. It also leaves the Black Cats with an acute sense of deja vu. After Bent's January sale to Aston Villa, they were making do for the rest of the season, eagerly anticipating the opportunity to sign.

Should a slump now mirror their decline then, their 2011 results will make for unpleasant reading, and Bruce's position will come under greater scrutiny.

History has repeated itself in his reign. During his first season on Wearside, he concluded he was guilty of trying to change too much too quickly.

Yet Sunderland have existed in a state of constant revolution since then; while Bruce has appointed a third captain in as many years, 11 players arrived in the summer.

The difficulty is not merely integrating them at a time when victories are paramount. It is also a case of patching up the gaps in the remodelled squad. Besides the striker shortage, there is a marked lack of natural left-sided players.

After such an overhaul, it is logical that it takes time for Bruce to determine his strongest side, something that is especially apparent in midfield, where he is alternating between Jack Colback, Craig Gardner and David Vaughan as Lee Cattermole's partner in the centre and searching for a solution on the problematic left flank.

Yet the rationale that they are a work in progress is afforded less credence in a third year at the helm. While the departures of Bent, Jordan Henderson and Gyan give Sunderland a healthy profit this calendar year, their image as big spenders persists, and that elevates expectations.

While Quinn has forged a reputation as one of the most understanding and supportive chairmen, the backdrop consists of an impatient area.

In a region where parochial concerns weigh heavily, Bruce's Geordie upbringing both enables him to understand the demands, and counts as an automatic hindrance when results are not forthcoming, especially against Newcastle United, the club he supported as a boy.

In such an environment, the journey from calm sea to rather choppier waters can be brief indeed, as Bruce can testify.

But plotting a course to comparative tranquility is all the harder without the man with a proven ability to find the route to goal.

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It was only a brief cameo, but it may have belatedly brought some optimism back to Goodison Park.

Royston Drenthe's Everton debut, in the closing stages of Saturday's 2-2 draw with Aston Villa, was a reminder of the talent that made him the player of the tournament in the 2007 European Under 21 Championships and prompted Real Madrid to sign him.

His pace and direct running brought a dynamism to an Everton side who can be short of speed in the final third.

David Moyes has loaned successfully before, most notably with Mikel Arteta before he signed the Spaniard. He might just have done so again.

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While some arrivals feel a natural fit in the Premier League, others experience a culture shock.

That would certainly seem to be the case for Fulham's £10.6 million (Dh61.7m) forward Bryan Ruiz, taken off at half-time in Sunday's 1-1 draw with Blackburn Rovers.

It bodes badly for the Costa Rican that this was a home game against a Rovers side who, no matter how physical some of their predecessors were, fielded slight technicians like Ruben Rochina and Mauro Formica.

Sterner tests await, not least in away games, and after his initial struggles, Martin Jol's biggest buy will have to display rather more resolve to justify what is, by Fulham's standards, a sizeable transfer fee.

 

sports@thenational.ae