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Three To Watch: Sunderland (Away)

A free-scoring former Royal, a creative spark on the wing and a tough-tackling midfielder all come under the microscope.

Aston Villa v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Lewis Grabban

We’ll start with the obvious one: former Reading forward and current Sunderland top-scorer Lewis Grabban. The 29 year-old is currently on loan at the Stadium of Light, dropping down to the second tier from Bournemouth in temporary search of game time, having done similar for the Royals last season.

The Cherries frontman was a big coup for Jaap Stam’s side last January, coming in on deadline day to boost a frontline that was relying too heavily on Yann Kermorgant. Indeed, it looked like a good signing - Grabban, a proven goalscorer in the Championship, was reuniting with his old strike partner from when the duo fired Bournemouth to automatic promotion.

However, it wasn’t to be. Grabban typically wasn’t played in his favoured role - a pacey frontman playing on the shoulder of the last defender, instead being shunted deeper into midfield or out wide to accommodate Stam’s 4-3-3. It was no surprise that his best performance came when lining up in a front two alongside Joseph Mendes at Aston Villa; Grabban grabbing two assists and a goal. In all, he claimed just three goals and three assists in 19 appearances.

Aston Villa v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

That’s very much not been the case this season, with Grabban already into double digits for the campaign (10), although he’s not registered an assist for a team mate. Nonetheless, it’s an impressive strike rate for a stumbling Sunderland side, and means that the Black Cats have more league goals than Reading (25 to 23), despite being in the bottom three.

Aiden McGeady

Sunderland’s creator-in-chief is former Celtic, Spartak Moscow and Everton man Aiden McGeady, who reunited with Simon Grayson at the Stadium of Light in the summer. The two had worked together at Preston North End last season, with McGeady’s eight goals and nine assists firing the team to a respectable 11th placed finish. However, that relationship fell apart a few weeks ago with the sacking of Simon Grayson on Halloween.

Nonetheless, the 93-cap Ireland international, who has also played in the Championship for Sheffield Wednesday, is Sunderland’s second biggest goal contributor this season with four goals and three assists. That’s more than any Reading player has managed, and shows how dangerous he can be at this level.

Italy v Republic of Ireland - Group E: UEFA Euro 2016 Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

By delving into his individual stats, we can see how influential McGeady has been for Sunderland. He takes the second most shots per game (2, Grabban comes top with 2.4), makes the most key passes (1.6), and the most dribbles of any player to have started at least eight league games (1.8).

The 31 year-old is likely to line up on the left for Sunderland, and is comfortable with both staying wide and crossing, and cutting inside to have a pop at goal himself. That means Reading’s right back on the day, who is likely to be either Leandro Bacuna or Chris Gunter, will have a particularly tricky customer to deal with.

John O’Shea

The veteran defender John O’Shea adds plenty of experience to Sunderland’s defence, having played for Manchester United for over a decade. In 2011, he made the switch to the North East for more regular football and got just that, racking up 230 appearances in six years for the Black Cats.

At 36, O’Shea may be in the twilight of his career, but he still has plenty to offer to Sunderland. That experience at the top level could, if Chris Coleman manages to make the most of it, prove to be the difference between the team staying in the Championship and them dropping into the third tier.

The Irishman, who has captained Sunderland in his last nine appearances, will be an important leader on the pitch when Reading visit the Stadium of Light. Whoever starts up front, whether it’s Yann Kermorgant or Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, could be in for a tough time.

***

So... this is what happens when you don’t do your research properly. An original version of this article had Didier N’Dong down as a key Sunderland player, but we’ve since been informed that he’s injured.

Livingston v Sunderland - Pre Season Friendly Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Egg, face etc.

Because we can’t be bothered to delete what we wrote, here’s what we put on him:

Didier N’Dong

Then-Premier League side Sunderland smashed their up-front transfer record in August 2016 to bring in FC Lorient’s Didier N’Dong, a tough-tackling defensive midfielder. Granted, that didn’t exactly help the Black Cats that season, but the Gabon international has still proven himself to be an excellent player at Championship level.

Sunderland v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Still only 23, only veterans McGeady (1349) and Lee Cattermole (1316) have played more league minutes than N’Dong (1304) this season. The tough-tackling midfielder is fifth in the Championship for challenges made per game (5.5) and a very respectable 15th for interceptions (2.3).

N’Dong hasn’t been in the Sunderland squad for the last three league games (Millwall at home, Aston Villa and Burton Albion away), but could very well be restored to the midfield to toughen it up. However, he’d likely have to displace either Paddy McNair or Lee Cattermole to do so.

Nonetheless, new manager Chris Coleman could be tempted to throw N’Dong into his first team for Reading’s visit. If he does, the likes of Joey van den Berg, Dave Edwards and others could be in for a very physical afternoon.