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.

FA Cup: Chelsea survive trip to Hull, advance to 5th round (video)

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With their 2-1 victory away to EFL Championship side Hull City, Chelsea joined Leicester City, Sheffield United and Norwich City as Premier League sides to reach the fifth round of the FA Cup on Saturday.

[ FA CUP ROUNDUP: West Ham bounced; Sheff Utd, Norwich advance ]

Frank Lampard‘s side got off to a flying start courtesy of Michy Batshuayi‘s deflected finish in the 6th minute, and the Blues were well on their way to a first half of total dominance.

Hull looked more prepared for a fight after halftime, but it mattered very little after Fikayo Tomori was gifted a free header two yards off the goal line. Ross Barkley‘s free kick was well placed at the back post and there was nothing that anyone could do to stop it.

[ MORE: Report: Spurs, Inter close to deal for Christian Eriksen ]

Hull pulled the game back to 2-1 in the 78th minute, and they were more than a little fortunate in how they managed to do so. Kamil Grosicki smacked a free kick with plenty of power and got the deflection of all deflections to wrong-foot Willy Caballero and find the back of the net.

The draw for the fifth round will be held on Monday at 2:20 p.m. ET, prior to kickoff of Bournemouth v. Arsenal.

FA Cup roundup: West Ham bounced; Sheff Utd, Norwich advance (video)

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s FA Cup fourth-round (early) action…

[ MORE: Saints hit Spurs late to force 4th-round replay ]

The draw for the fifth round will be held on Monday at 2:20 p.m. ET, prior to kickoff of Bournemouth v. Arsenal.

West Ham United 0-1 West Bromwich Albion

West Ham were the lone Premier League side to be knocked out by a lower-division side on Saturday, as David Moyes‘ side failed to find the back of the net and were beaten 1-0 by EFL Championship leaders West Brom.

Conor Townsend scored the game’s only goal in the 9th minute, and though the Hammers controlled possession the rest of the way, they created very little in terms of scoring chances and finished the game with just three shots on target. West Brom finished the game with 10 men, but West Ham could do nothing with their 18-minute advantage following Semi Ajayi‘s second yellow card in the 72nd minute.

Millwall 0-2 Sheffield United

Sheffield United’s dream season continued with a comfortable 2-0 victory away to Championship side Millwall. Both goals came inside the final half-hour, but the Blades were unquestionably the better side even before breaking the deadlock.

That came in the 62nd minute, when Muhamed Besic placed a stunning curler inside the far post for 1-0. Not long before full-time, in the 84th, Oliver Norwood drove his effort hard and low and into the corner to make it 2-0.

Burnley 1-2 Norwich City

Norwich and Burnley were largely inseparable for the majority of Saturday’s clash at Turf Moor, save for a four-minute period early in the second half in which Norwich scored twice and booked their place in the fifth round.

Grant Hanley made it 1-0 in the 53rd and Josip Drmic added to the advantage in the 57th minute. Erik Pieters pulled Burnley back to within a goal in the 73rd, but that’s as close as the Clarets would get.

FA Cup fourth-round scoreboard

Southampton 1-1 Tottenham Hotspur — FULL RECAP
Newcastle United 0-0 Oxford United
Portsmouth 4-2 Barnsley
Coventry City 0-0 Birmingham City
Reading 1-1 Cardiff City

RB Leipzig beaten, Bundesliga title race thrown wide open

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BERLIN (AP) Eintracht Frankfurt defeated Bundesliga leader RB Leipzig 2-0 to throw the title race wide open on Saturday.

[ MORE: Report: Spurs, Inter close to deal for Christian Eriksen ]

Frankfurt defender Almamy Toure scored a brilliant goal just after the break and Filip Kostic sealed the win in injury time to deal Leipzig its first defeat since a 2-1 loss at home to Freiburg in October.

Borussia Monchengladbach cut the gap at the top to two points with a 3-1 win at home over Mainz, thanks largely to goals in each half from French striker Alassane Plea.

Bayern Munich has the chance to cut the gap to one point with a win at home over Schalke in the late game.

[ FA CUP: Saints hit Spurs late to force 4th-round replay ]

Borussia Dortmund is just four points off the top after its 5-1 win over Cologne on Friday.

Also Saturday, Union Berlin defeated Augsburg 2-0 at home, Hertha Berlin came from behind to win 2-1 at Wolfsburg, and Paderborn moved off the bottom with a 2-0 win at Freiburg.

FA Cup: Saints hit Spurs late to force 4th-round replay

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Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur played to a virtual stand-still for nearly 60 minutes before Jose Mourinho’s side broke through with a moment of true quality from Son Heung-min and Giovani Lo Celso, but finished right back where they started after Saints hit back late to force a replay in the fourth round of the FA Cup.

[ MORE: Report: Spurs, Inter close to deal for Christian Eriksen ]

Prior to that, Lo Celso put the ball in the back of the net and briefly thought it was he who had put Spurs ahead, but the Argentine was denied his third Spurs goal on the basis that the ball hit Son on its way through traffic, and the South Korean was in an offside position.

Spurs’ best chance of the first half chance came and went just minutes later, with Lucas Moura in disbelief and Angus Gunn the hero of the moment. Dele Alli played Lucas into open space inside the penalty area and, with the goal gaping to Gunn’s left and right, Lucas looked to place his right-footed shot inside the far post. Gunn was up to the challenge, though, and pulled off a sensational left-footed save from close range.

Seconds later, Saints had a surefire scoring chance and were denied in equally spectacular fashion. Danny Ings used his chest to control a free kick into the box and looped it goal-bound over the head of Hugo Lloris, only for Japhet Tanganga to make the last-second headed clearance in front of an open net.

[ MORE: Mourinho in favor of PL’s winter break, but says timing all wrong ]

Saints were the first to go ever so close to a goal in the second half. Michael Obafemi crossed from the right side and found Ings inside the six-yard box, where he redirected the ball ever so slightly, but not enough, to send it inches wide of Lloris’ right-hand post.

Following a spell that was all Saints to start the second half, Spurs broke the deadlock through Son in the 58th minute. Lo Celso drove through the heart of Southampton’s midfield before playing the ball to Son near the top of the 18-yard box. He took a touch to set up the shot and fired a left-footed arrow inside the far post.

The lead lasted just shy of 30 minutes, close but not quite over the finish line. With 87 minutes on the clock and a full head of steam over the preceding quarter-hour, Southampton got their hugely deserved equalizer. Sofiane Boufal arrived near the top of the box as Ings’ cut-back ball arrived and the Moroccan international hammered it home.

The two sides will meet again for their fourth-round replay in two weeks at the Tottenham Hotspur. The draw for the fifth round will be held on Monday at 2:20 p.m. ET, prior to kickoff of Bournemouth v. Arsenal.