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Reimagining Sunderland: Altidore, Fletcher, Borini and Giaccherini together could devastate

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Let’s take a brief moment to reimagine Sunderland.

After setting the record for the worst ever start in the Barclays Premier League (1 point in the first eight matches), the Black Cats grabbed their first three points of the season defeating rivals Newcastle 2-1 in the Wear-Tyne derby.

The victory seemed inspired by a number of things, not the least of which was the hiring of Gus Poyet following the dismissal of Paulo Di Canio. Yet while Poyet earned the result his side needed, the Uruguayan arguably did so without utilizing the best talent his side has to offer.

Coming out in 4-4-2 formation against Newcastle Poyet deployed a back line of Phil Bardsley, Carlos Cuellar, John O’Shea and Andrea Dossena, a midfield four of Adam Johnson, Lee Catermole, Jack Colback and Seb Larrson, with a front two of Jozy Altidore and Steven Fletcher.

Putting Altidore and Fletcher in the same side was a great play by Poyet, a move that Di Canio fooled with but never seemed convinced by. While Altidore and Fletcher both typically play as the top striker in the 10 spot, they are by no means mutually exclusive forwards.

With his size and hold up play, Altidore is able to play higher up the pitch while Flether’s skill and versatility allows him to play in the hole of a 4-2-3-1 formation. What becomes difficult, however, is involving Fabio Borini, who more than proved his worth on Sunday when he cracked an 84th minute winner into the top corner.

On that play, Borini swooped in from the left wing to collect Altidore’s layoff before unleashing from the center of the park. It was a run that left Mathieu Debuchy and the right side of Newcastle’s midfield baffled. Borini’s speed, along with his ability to create off the dribble, make him an excellent option on the wing, where he was occasionally used at Roma.

Which is why Adam Johnson needs to sit. On his day, Johnson can create and devastate but when is the last time that happened? The spring 2013 Tyne-Wear derby? Johnson’s inconsistency needs to be addressed through a benching.

Sunderland also would be a far more dangerous team with Emanuele Giaccherini on the right wing. With his pace, skill and knack for finding the back of the net, the Italian has been the Black Cats’ brightest offensive talent this season, which made Poyet’s decision to bench him in last weekend’s derby quite surprising.

Whether that omission was due to a knock or a disagreement between player and coach has not been made public. But assuming all is well with Giaccherini, he is an absolute must start for Sunderland going forward.

The fear in deploying a front four of Altidore, Borini, Fletcher and Giaccherini, is that the club would be liable defensively. But, as was evident in Debuchy’s back post goal, Johnson is rarely interested in playing defense and there’s little to suggest Borini is much worse. Giaccherini’s tackling may not be his best gift but his furious work ethic has proven more than enough to frustrate the opposition.

Bolstering the midfield defense is the holding pair of Lee Catermole and Jack Colback, who Poyet used against Newcastle. That decision suffocated the middle of the park for Newcastle as Catermole put in his best performance of the season. With these two cleaning up in front of the back four, Sunderland possess the necessary balance to unleash Altidore, Fletcher, Borini and Giaccherini as a front four.

The best decision Poyet made last weekend was to infuse his side with confidence and to urge them to take the game to Newcastle. Despite only having accumulated four points this season, the Black Cats possess some pretty impressive talent. If the Uruguayan can manage to get his best unit on the pitch at the same time, fear of relegation on Wearside could be a thing of the past.

Watch Live: Sunderland vs. Manchester United (Lineups, Stream)

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 26:  Anthony Martial of Manchester United and John O'Shea of Sunderland compete for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Sunderland at Old Trafford on September 26, 2015 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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Struggling Sunderland host top-four chasing Manchester United on Saturday (Watch live, 7:45 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online goal Live Extra) at the Stadium of Light.

The Black Cats haven’t won in their last four games and are four points of safety. Desperation sums up the mood for Sam Allardyce‘s side.

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The same could be said for United as Louis Van Gaal‘s side continue to leak goals and they’re now six points off the top four with just 13 games to go. Speculation linking Jose Mourinho with a summer arrival at Old Trafford continues with LVG’s job seemingly on the line.

Sunderland’s survival hopes took an unexpected hit this week, as winger Adam Johnson had his contract terminated after he surprisingly pleading guilty to a child sex charge in court.

In team news Sunderland bring in DeAndre Yedlin for Billy Jones, while United bring in Morgan Schneiderlin for Marouane Fellaini.  

LINEUPS

Sunderland: Mannone, Yedlin, O’Shea, Kone, van Aanholt, Kirchhoff, Cattermole, M’Vila, Khazri, N’Doye, Defoe. Subs: Brown, Rodwell, Borini, Matthews, Pickford, Toivonen, Honeyman

Manchester United: De Gea, Darmian, Smalling, Blind, Borthwick-Jackson, Schneiderlin, Carrick, Lingard, Mata, Martial, Rooney. Subs: Romero, Love, Weir, Pereira, Herrera, Memphis, Keane.

Xavi backs Dybala, Verratti to succeed at Barcelona over Pogba

TURIN, ITALY - JANUARY 24:  Paulo Dybala (R) of Juventus FC celebrates after scoring the opening goal with team mate Paul Pogba during the Serie A match between Juventus FC and AS Roma at Juventus Arena on January 24, 2016 in Turin, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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With Paul Pogba linked with a possible summer move to Barcelona worth more than $100 million, one legend at Camp Nou believes Pogba may not be the right signing.

[ MORE: Top 5 PL storylines ]

After making more than 700 appearances for Barcelona, Xavi knows the club as well as anyone, and he prefers Pogba’s Juventus teammate Paulo Dybala for a move to the Catalan giants.

Xavi also praised the play of Paris Saint-Germain’s Marco Verratti, saying that while Pogba is a star player, Dybala and Verratti have “Barca DNA.”

There’s two players I really like, both of whom I think have Barca’s DNA. They are Marco Verratti and Paulo Dybala.

They are amazing and, thanks to their quality and style of play, would easily integrate into the [Barca] machine. I see them as future stars at the club.

[Pogba] is a great player. He’ll be a star for France as he is for Juve, but I see him with a different game to ours.

Both Pogba and Dybala are 22-years-old, while Verratti is 23. All three players have been among the elite young talents in the world, with Pogba earning the most praise of the group and always linked with a big-money move to Europe’s top clubs.

[ RELATED: Messi named La Liga Player of the Month for first time in career ]

Dybala is enjoying a breakout season at Juventus, currently with 13 goals and eight assists in Serie A play. In Paris, Verratti is part of a PSG side that hasn’t lost in 25 matches and holds a 24-point lead at the top of the table.

Vincent Kompany set to make Manchester City return this weekend

during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Arsenal at Etihad Stadium on January 18, 2015 in Manchester, England.
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Vincent Kompany is set to make his first appearance for Manchester City since Boxing Day as the defender has returned from injury.

City’s captain and center-back missed more than six weeks with a calf injury before Christmas, and then reaggravated the injury just minutes into his return at the end of December.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

However, Kompany has been back in training and manager Manuel Pellegrini said he is fit to play this weekend when City host Tottenham in a huge top-four matchup.

We’ll see what the starting XI is tomorrow – we’re not just thinking about one player and one game, we’re involved in a lot of competitions. Maybe we have a lot of criticism when we don’t play well but I’m happy with the squad over the whole season.

Every player must play a game when they’re 100%. Vincent has worked for three weeks with no problems. He played 45 minutes in a friendly game against the under-21s and I think he’s ready to play.

Kompany’s presence in the City back-line has been pivotal this season. In the eight Premier League games Kompany has started, City have kept seven clean sheets. In the 18 matches without the big Belgian in the starting lineup, City have kept just five.

[ RELATED: Diego Costa suffers broken nose in Chelsea training ]

With City just a point behind Tottenham, Kompany returns from injury just in time for one of the biggest matches of the season. Tasked with slowing down Harry Kane and Spurs’ high-flying attack, Kompany’s play could prove crucial to the Citizens getting a result.

Premier League Preview: Chelsea vs. Newcastle United

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  • CFC unbeaten under Hiddink (W5, D6)
  • Newcastle have just 6 away goals all season
  • Diego Costa: 6 goals in his last 7 PL matches

Chelsea look to extend their unbeaten streak under Guus Hiddink to 12 matches on Saturday when the Blues host relegation-threatened Newcastle (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

The Blues’ last loss came under Jose Mourinho in December.

[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every PL game via Live Extra ]

Chelsea are up to 13th on the table, currently riding a run of 11 matches unbeaten in all competitions. Guus Hiddink is yet to suffer a loss after taking over for his second stint at Stamford Bridge in December, although draws have kept Chelsea from climbing further up the table. Diego Costa has had the hot-hand with six goals in his last seven appearances, but the Spanish striker will be forced to play with a mask after suffering a broken nose in training.

[ MORE: Hiddink has “no fear” of playing youngsters in Zouma’s absence ]

For Newcastle, the Magpies sit 17th on the table just one point above the drop. Their away form has hurt the club all season, as Steve McClaren‘s men have scored a league-low six goals on the road this year. The Magpies are coming off of a win over West Brom, and supporters will be hoping the club’s new January signings continue to produce. Seydou Doumbia could make his Premier League debut on Saturday, which would be a massive boost to the attack.

What they’re saying

Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink: “The status of being unbeaten sounds good but realistically we would have wished to have more victories, especially at home. And we have an opportunity to do so against Newcastle. They improved their squad with substance, some good signings, and they are more competitive now.”

Newcastle boss Steve McClaren: “In our home games we are starting to get a consistency in our performance and the way we play. We need to start transferring that to our away games and picking up points away from home – we owe it to the fans.”

Prediction

Newcastle have just two wins in their last 18 league matches away from home, and I don’t see that trend changing this weekend. Chelsea have looked a new team with Guus Hiddink in charge, and they stay unbeaten under the Dutchman. Chelsea 2-1 Newcastle United.