When Harry Redknapp and Martin O'Neill shake hands before adjourning to adjacent technical areas at Sunderland tomorrow night on Tuesday night one man will be the subject of an awful lot of fuss but the other will be under enormous pressure. Although a much improved performance against West Brom on Saturday was arguably Sunderland's best at home this season they have won only two of their last 20 Premier League games and club officials spent part of Sunday morning rubbishing rumours that O'Neill had offered to resign.
The Northern Irishman believes he deserves a full season to implement his blueprint but he could do without an impending visit from Redknapp's newly inherited QPR. Particularly as Lee Cattermole and John O'Shea sustained injuries against West Brom which will sideline them for several weeks. If only O'Neill could borrow Zoltan Gera and Claudio Yacob for Redknapp's visit. Gera has spent too much of his career being regarded as a "luxury" yet, on Saturday, the Hungarian playmaker looked an indispensable component of a West Brom XI enjoying their best start to a season since 1953.
Maybe Gera's deployment as the central midfield attacker in a 4-2-3-1 formation explains why he was not only able to open the scoring with a gloriously curving 25 yard shot but offer so much creativity and control to a team which went third after a fourth successive league win. Perhaps Steve Clarke's meticulous coaching and clever rotation have also played a part in the 33-year-old's renaissance, while the experience of spending most of last season sidelined following major knee surgery has possibly left him determined to fully maximise his talents.
Despite Sunderland having a sizeable portion of bad luck, O'Neill's lack of a highly imaginative technician in the Gera mould seemed painfully apparent. It also begged the question as to whether the home team's sometimes slightly dated looking 4-4-2 framework needs re-designing in order to revive struggling individuals such as Adam Johnson.
Clarke's system offered contrasting scope for improvisation and reassuring stability. While the resurgent Stéphane Sessègnon scored Sunderland's second goal and frequently sparked team-mates into attacking life, Clarke's two-man deep midfield anchoring department of James Morrison and the especially impressive Yacob regularly limited the damage by intelligently forcing him wide.
Their cause was aided by Simon Mignolet's untypical fumble which permitted Shane Long to tap West Brom's second goal into an unguarded net. Craig Gardner's deflected free-kick reduced the deficit but Liam Ridgewell's dive secured a penalty converted by Romelu Lukaku before Marc-Antoine Fortuné's curled stoppage time fourth. As O'Neill acknowledged, QPR is "a big game".
Man of the match Zoltan Gera (West Bromwich Albion)
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image: © Dagur Brynjólfsson