WITH Sunderland facing an early-season injury crisis ahead of today’s home game with Blackburn, manager Steve Bruce has claimed the packed August programme has put his players’ health at risk.
Lee Cattermole and Steed Malbranque are extremely unlikely to feature against Rovers, with the former struggling with the back injury he sustained against Chelsea and the latter hampered by an ankle problem suffered on the opening day of the season.
Lorik Cana, Kieran Richardson and Marton Fulop are also nursing a variety of knocks, with Bruce claiming this month’s hectic fixture schedule has placed an unfair burden on his squad.
When the Black Cats face Norwich in the Carling Cup second round on Monday, they will be playing their fourth game in the space of eight days, a situation Bruce feels is “ludicrous” at such an early stage of the season.
“We’ve got ten months to play 38 (league) games, so surely to goodness we can restructure things so we don’t have to play three Premier League games in a week, with a cup game thrown on top,”
said the Sunderland boss, who was powerless to prevent next week’s cup game being switched to Monday night.
“Throw this month’s international games in there as well, and it just doesn’t make sense. It’s totally ridiculous to ask that of a footballer who is just starting the season.
“We wonder why we have knocks, bumps and strains, but the players just don’t have time to recover and that’s my gripe about it.”
To make matters worse, Sunderland will line up this afternoon against a Blackburn side who have been resting since last weekend’s defeat to Manchester City.
Rovers should have been playing at Fulham on Tuesday, but with the Cottagers involved in the play-off round of the Europa League, Sam Allardyce’s side were able to take it easy in the wake of their opening-day exertions.
Bruce feels such a situation is patently unfair, and will raise the issue at the next round of Premier League meetings.
“How can it be right? It can’t be,” he said. “It’s something we’ll bring up and make a point of because it’s a ludicrous situation.
“We know that clubs involved in Europe have to have a big squad because of the games they’re going to play, but to ask some teams to play in midweek while others don’t is not on. Everyone knows this had been earmarked for a European week, so why were Premier League matches scheduled as well?”
While Blackburn’s players were recuperating at home on Tuesday evening, Sunderland’s were going down to a 3- 1 home defeat to Chelsea.
The Black Cats were outclassed as Chelsea turned on the style in the second half, but Bruce has cited Darren Bent’s 18th-minute opener as a major positive to emerge from the game.
Having opened his Sunderland account with the winner at Bolton last weekend, Bent now boasts two goals from two matches, and Bruce feels the £10m man is playing as well as any centre-forward in the country.
England boss Fabio Capello was at the Stadium of Light to watch the 25-year-old on Tuesday night, and with a crucial World Cup qualifier with Croatia scheduled for the start of next month, Sunderland’s record signing is pushing for an international recall.
“He’s had a wonderful start and, let’s be honest, there’s not many English forwards playing in the Premier League are there?” said Bruce.
“There’s probably only about four or five in total. If Darren keeps scoring and contributing to the team, he would have to have a chance.
“He’s showing why we went for him. He was desperate to come here and desperate to prove people wrong. He wanted to be Sunderland’s centreforward and I’ve been delighted with his contribution to the opening two games.”
That contribution has included a large amount of harrying and tracking back – a marked contrast to many of Djibril Cisse’s performances last season – and Bruce revealed Bent had covered more than 13km during Tuesday’s defeat.
“That’s phenomenal for a striker because they’ll usually peak at about 11,” he said.
“The amount of ground he covers is fantastic.
“He’s the club’s record signing and obviously everybody wants him to do well. They still talk about (Niall) Quinn and (Kevin) Phillips up here, so that just shows how much the Sunderland supporters like their strikers.”
Bent will continue alongside Kenwyne Jones this afternoon, but the make-up of the Black Cats’ midfield will depend on whether Cana and Richardson are passed fit.
Cana is still in considerable pain, even though scans to his damaged left hand revealed no fracture, while Richardson was struggling in the latter stages of Tuesday’s game because of the dead leg he suffered at Bolton.
Fulop is having painkilling injections in his injured heel, but the Hungarian is expected to retain the goalkeeping spot and keep the fit-again Craig Gordon out of the starting line-up.