Apologies for the time that has elapsed since my last post - a break that even the politicians would find gratuitous. Let's get down to business sharpish: can Steve Bruce's Sunderland haul themselves into the top 8, the domain of the sides with real aspirations? Many of the club's playing and coaching staff are on record as expressing disappointment that they currently lie 10th after a highly promising start to the campaign. But are they labouring under delusions of grandeur, or can they really be considered as serious contenders in the chase for a Europa League place?
Certainly Steve Bruce has assembled a squad containing genuine talent. A fully fit roster possesses pace, power, refinement and commitment, and many excellent signings were made over the summer. Lee Cattermole and Lorik Cana are particular highlights - dynamic, passionate midfielders more than capable of holding their own against any other central midfield pairing in the league. Michael Turner continues to shine at centre-half and cannot be too far away from an England call up, despite the rude health of the pool in that department, and able backup exists in John Mensah and Paulo da Silva, full internationals who have displayed much competence thus far.
Then there is Darren Bent, who under Bruce now possesses two crucial ingredients that make up the productive athlete: confidence and regular opportunities. Bent has always been a fine finisher - unhelpful comments from Harry Redknapp notwithstanding - and playing every week has allowed him to more than pay off his significant transfer fee before Christmas. Bruce has also benefitted from the much improved fitness of Andy Reid, who now has the energy and desire to match his undoubted technical ability, and the rapid progress of Jordan Henderson, a homegrown talent who has acquitted himself marvellously when covering for the injured Cattermole in recent weeks. The youngster is now more than capable of making the XI on merit.
Sunderland, then, have the players to push for a place in the top half of the table at the very least. Two obstacles, though, currently stand in their path. The first is their away form: barring an excellent point at Old Trafford, the Black Cats have generally been below-par on the road, and their performances contrast vastly with those seen at the Stadium of Light, where both Arsenal and Liverpool have been dispatched. Bruce's recent demands that Sunderland adopt the mentality of Manchester United when on their travels express a fine sentiment but will require a great deal more time in order to bear fruit.
The second obstacle is the reality that Sunderland were certainly not the only club over the summer to back their ambitions with the cheque book. Aston Villa, Spurs and Everton all invested heavily over the summer, and then of course there is Man City. All four harbour realistic expectations of a top seven finish, and at present only Everton are below the Cats. To the mix we can also add Fulham and Stoke, both of whom seem capable of replicating last season's fine results, and a dark horse by the name of Birmingham City. A Sunderland side unable to travel well cannot be expected to finish ahead of many of their rivals, and would be well within their rights to be feeling Blue if Alex McLeish's surprise package manage to keep hold of their current 8th place.
On paper Sunderland look a solid bet for a top half finish, but having used up much of their quota of luck during 'Balloongate', Bruce's boys must strive to reproduce their home performances on the road if they are to convince owner Ellis Short to keep stumping up the cash and attracting real talent to Wearside.