x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Bruce wants change in fortune for Sunderland

The manager denies that sale of Bent has been cause of a string of three defeats in the Premier League.

Steve Bruce, the Sunderland manager, has blamed poor defending for his side's woes. Michael Egerton / Empics
Steve Bruce, the Sunderland manager, has blamed poor defending for his side's woes. Michael Egerton / Empics

Steve Bruce, the Sunderland manager, has challenged his players to put their bodies on the line to halt their run of Premier League defeats after getting a vote of confidence from the club's bosses.

The seventh-placed Black Cats head for Everton today having lost their past three games are in danger of being reeled in by the chasing pack even as the manager got his contract renewed till 2014.

A lengthy injury list and a series of fixtures which handed the club difficult home clashes with Champions League rivals Chelsea and Tottenham either side of a tough trip to Stoke are mitigating factors.

With Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City waiting in the wings, Bruce knows that things could get even tougher in the weeks ahead.

However, he insists a new-found fragility at set-pieces rather than Darren Bent's departure for Aston Villa last month is to blame for their recent slide; Sunderland have taken only three points from a possible 12 since the striker's £24 million (Dh141m) exit.

As a former central defender himself, Bruce believes the solution is obvious, even if it means a few strenuous afternoons for his players.

"I don't think it has got anything to do with Darren going," he said. "We scored twice against Chelsea, we scored two at Stoke, we scored against Tottenham, we scored two at Blackpool.

"Darren Bent was never going to defend set-pieces for us. Never. We have conceded seven goals in our last eight games from set-pieces.

"In the 21 games previous to that, we had conceded six, so you don't have to be a rocket scientist to see what we have tried to work on all this week.

"But it is very difficult to replicate it. If you try to put a ball in and go and defend set-pieces, people get hurt, if you do it properly.

"Unfortunately, we haven't had too many hurt just lately, so that tells me one or two things."

A sustained spell in the top six sparked talk of European qualification among more optimistic fans, something to which the manager never publicly subscribed, but he believes the objective he set back in August is still attainable.

"I honestly believe the Premier League is a marathon," he said, "and there are going to be times in the season when you think: 'That could be difficult.'"

The omens are not good for an improvement in fortunes today. Everton have won 10 and lost none of the past 13 meetings between the two clubs in all competitions, and the Black Cats have won only one Premier League game at Goodison Park, that coming in November 1996.

Bruce could also be without Craig Gordon, the goalkeeper. The Scotsman has a knee injury, which he is struggling to recover from and it could mean Simon Mignolet plays instead today.

Sunderland hasn't finished in the top half in England's first division for 10 years. but the club chairman Niall Quinn yesterday said Bruce "has reshaped our squad beyond recognition" in his 18 months at the club.

The 50-year-old Bruce added that Sunderland "has the makings of a fantastic young team."

* Agencies

7pm Abu Dhabi Sports 3