x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Net gains for rusty duo is first task for Martin O'Neill at Sunderland

The new manager has made getting the best out of striker Nicklas Bendtner and attacking midfielder Craig Gardner his priorities.

Sunderland have one point from four games and Martin O' Neill will want to change that.
Sunderland have one point from four games and Martin O' Neill will want to change that.

Martin O'Neill takes charge of his first game as Sunderland manager today, and he has made getting the best out of striker Nicklas Bendtner one of his key priorities.

The Dane moved to the Stadium of Light this summer on a season-long loan from Arsenal, but has so far failed to have a major effect and has managed only two goals.

Trouble finding the net is the main reason Sunderland find themselves embroiled in the struggle at the foot of the table having managed only 16 goals in 14 Premier League matches.

O'Neill appreciates it may have taken Bendtner some time to get used to playing for a new club, and he is a doubt for today's crunch clash against Blackburn Rovers with a groin injury, but the manager is determined bring out the best in the 23 year old.

"I think that is paramount," said O'Neill. "He has a lot of natural talent. He wasn't always in the starting line-up at Arsenal. They have allowed him to come up here and now it's an important time for him.

"This season is one where he can come through, he can score some goals."

Midfielder Craig Gardner, a summer signing from Birmingham City, also struggled to establish himself in the side under Bruce.

He is a player O'Neill knows well from his Aston Villa days, and the Northern Irishman is hoping Gardner can begin to play a full part.

O'Neill said: "I sold Craig to Birmingham but the players who were keeping Craig out of the team were all England internationals, so it was going to be hard for Craig to play, and he wanted to play first-team football.

"But he is genuinely a terrific lad and he can score a goal, and I'm sure he's relishing the challenge ahead of him again."

While O'Neill hopes today will yield maximum points after a run of only one point from four matches, one thing he does not expect to change is the attitude of the players.

"I think that would be really unfair on Steve Bruce's time here to start talking about a change of attitude," he said. "I hate that when you leave a football club and the next thing you know somebody who hasn't played for the last few weeks - because generally speaking he hasn't been good enough - has then come out and criticised the manager, and said now is his chance.

"I think the attitude of the players has always been pretty decent."

Visitors Blackburn have not had trouble scoring goals of late, with nine in their past three league games, and manager Steve Kean has backed on-fire striker Yakubu to become the first Rovers player to top 20 Premier League goals in a season since Alan Shearer in 1996.

Yakubu has already hit the back of the net nine times in eight starts in the league so far this campaign - including all four last weekend in the 4-2 victory over Swansea City.

"He has an eye for goal and he's in a position now when he gets any chance he expects to score," said Kean. "If we can keep him fit there is no reason why he can't get those 20 goals in the season."

* Press Association

5.30pm, Abu Dhabi Sports 3 & 5