Glenn Moore: United job awaits if O'Neill can transform Sunderland's ordinary boys into major force

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The Weekend Dossier

With 24 years management behind him, beginning in the Southern League at Grantham Town, Martin O'Neill is one of the game's most experienced and respected managers.

He has been considered for jobs such as England and Liverpool, and is regularly touted as a candidate to be Sir Alex Ferguson's successor.

However, in his 60th year, he finds his story embarking on a new chapter at Sunderland, once one of the greatest clubs in the land, but now with one major honour in 74 years. A boyhood Rokerite he may have been, but is this where O'Neill imagined himself a decade ago?

There is ambition and potential aplenty on Wearside and O'Neill, with his drive, intelligence and experience, could be the man to unlock it. Or it could all end, as at Villa Park, in mutual disillusionment. Either way this coming together of an intense Irishman, the Texan millionaire owner, and a club which longs to be back at the game's summit, looks as if it will be a defining partnership for all concerned. Most of all it should resolve the question: is O'Neill an outstanding football manager, or just one of many decent, but unexceptional ones?

O'Neill said yesterday he would like his team to play like Barcelona. If he does it would dispel one reservation. O'Neill's teams have tended to be functional rather than inspirational. They have pace on the flanks, a big striker, a solid back four protected by sitting midfielders and a reliance on counter-attacking and set-plays. Well organised teams playing this way can prosper, but only up to the point where they are expected to make the running, to take the game to opponents who are happy to draw. The onus was on his Celtic team in domestic competition but, with respect, O'Neill's high-tempo game was suited to the SPL and Celtic had much better, and often bigger, players than most opponents.

O'Neill's first task on Wearside is to stabilise the team and banish the spectre of relegation. He can be expected to start well, beginning with victory over Blackburn Rovers tomorrow. Sunderland have a competent squad, lacking real class and with some glaring weaknesses, but better than results suggest. O'Neill has identified confidence as the most immediate problem. This can perhaps can be extended to include a collective failure of nerve which would explain both the poor home form and the tendency to leak decisive late goals. Footballers generally respond to the arrival of a new manager whoever he is and O'Neill's infectious personality and generally excellent man-management, should provide Sunderland's players with the required self-belief.

The next steps, moving into contention for a place in the Europa League, then Champions League, will be more difficult. This is a team which has not finished in the top six since 1955 and the "Bank of England" team of Len Shackleton, Billy Bingham et al. Three years later the club were relegated, having been sanctioned by the Football Association in the interim for making illegal payments to players. In the subsequent half-century they finished in the top 10 three times.

With that history Sunderland know better than most that spending cash does not automatically translate into results (the Bank of England team failed to win anything). Nevertheless, wages normally correlate to finishing position and without investment O'Neill has little prospect of realising Ellis Short's ambitions.

He takes over with three weeks to assess his squad before the transfer window opens but January is never a good time to panic-buy and O'Neill does not need wholesale reconstruction. The significant recruitment will be in the summer.

At Villa, O'Neill spent heavily to get the team to sixth, but despite further investment the top four was beyond him. It will not be easier at Sunderland who, being in an economically depressed region, generate less income. On the last available figures (2009-10) their £54m wage bill was only the 10th highest in the division, but was still a very risky 82 per cent of turnover (£65m). Losses, for the second successive year, were above £25m. Like many Premier League clubs they are hugely dependent on TV income (which is why relegation cannot be countenanced) and, but for Short, the auditors effectively admitted, the club would not be a going concern.

O'Neill had his first look at the team he inherits at Molineux last Sunday, when they lost from a winning position at Wolves. He will have noted a goalkeeper with sharp reactions in Keiren Westwood, a tricky ball-player in Stéphane Sessègnon, whose best position remains unclear, a typically languid display from Nicklas Bendtner, a busy one from Kieran Richardson deputising at left-back, and much ordinariness. He must make one change tomorrow as Lee Cattermole incurred an untimely suspension. The combative midfielder may not find O'Neill as indulgent as Steve Bruce was, not that Craig Gardner, having been sold by O'Neill at Villa, will expect to retain a place.

Bendtner could prove a key player, if he is prepared to put himself about a bit, because O'Neill has usually opted for a big striker leading the line, but there is a shortage of the width, pace and height which usually characterises O'Neill's teams. He must thus either buy a new team, or reinvent himself as the Mackem Guardiola.

This may seem fanciful, but the shrewd O'Neill frequently surprises people. If he succeeds Old Trafford surely awaits; if not history may judge him as a talent unfulfilled.

Five Asides

1. Channel 5 keeping fingers crossed for friends re-United

Having secured both Manchester clubs, Channel 5 executives will be hoping one other team makes it into Friday's Europa League draw. Paris St-Germain need to better Red Bull Salzburg's result on Wednesday. All C5 needs then is for PSG to be paired with United, and the speculation linking David Beckham with the French club to prove correct.

2. Barcelona will steal the show but Al-Sadd well worth a look

The Club World Cup started in Japan on Thursday with the eyes of the favourites, Barcelona, still firmly fixed on domestic events. Barça will not fly out until tomorrow but Auckland City are already out, having made an 11,000-mile round-trip for 90 minutes of football. The tournament will not receive global attention until, as is probable, Barcelona meet Neymar's Santos in next Friday's final, but it is worth looking out for Al-Sadd, the Qatari champions. In a precursor of Qatar's probable World Cup 2022 team (which they will host unless sanity prevails) they have several players of foreign origin – from Sudan and Ghana to Saudi Arabia and Yemen – who have been naturalised as Qataris.

3. No double standards – the FA was just ensuring justice

Justice was served in the reduction of Wayne Rooney's three-match Euro 2012 ban because there was precedent in Andrei Arshavin receiving only a two-match suspension before Euro 2008 for a near-identical offence. To suggest the Football Association was guilty of "double standards" as Kenny Dalglish did, was unworthy. Liverpool may be aggrieved at the FA's disciplinary process at present, but as Jack Rodwell could point out, they have had decisions go their way, too.

4. Use your head-to-head to make sure the best team wins

Lyons' remarkable 7-1 win over Dynamo Zagreb showed the necessity of Uefa retaining head-to-heads instead of goal difference to separate teams level on points. After two goalless draws, Ajax and Lyons were level head-to-head, so goal difference mattered. It seems nothing was untoward about Dynamo's collapse, but it does underline the risks.

5. Will big-spending Blues end up dangerously in the red?

Andre Villas-Boas is expected to invest heavily next month as he seeks to accelerate his overhaul of Chelsea's team. But how will spending £50m-plus on the likes of Falcao, Daniel Pranjic and Gary Cahill square with the club's need to meet Uefa's impending financial fair-play regulations?

Glenn Moore's verdict on all the weekend action

Arsenal v Everton

Odds: Home 8-15; Draw 3-1, Away 11-2.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1 10.20pm)

Team news: Andre Santos (ankle) has added to Arsène Wenger's full-back woes after suffering an injury in midweek. Lukasz Fabianski (knee) and Vito Mannone (shoulder) are also out, so Manuel Almunia returns to the squad. Everton miss Jack Rodwell (hamstring), but will give late checks to Leon Osman, Royston Drenthe and Louis Saha.

Bolton v Aston Villa

Odds: Home 6-4; Draw 23-10, Away 15-8.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1 10.20pm)

Team news: Gary Cahill will be available for Bolton after having his red card from last week's defeat at Spurs rescinded, although David Wheater remains banned. Nigel Reo-Coker (hamstring) is a doubt. Brad Guzan replaces Shay Given (hamstring) for Aston Villa, while Stiliyan Petrov or Stephen Ireland will replace Jermaine Jenas (Achilles).

Liverpool v QPR

Odds: Home 1-3; Draw 4-1, Away 9-1.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1 10.20pm)

Team news: Jay Spearing begins a three-match ban for Liverpool after his red card at Fulham on Monday, while Lucas (knee) and Steven Gerrard (ankle) are injured. Radek Cerny remains in goal for QPR, while Matt Connolly is pushing for a return, along with Kieron Dyer and D J Campbell. Adel Taarabt (thigh) undergoes a fitness test.

Man United v Wolves

Odds: Home 2-9; Draw 5-1, Away 14-1.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1 10.20pm)

Team news: Sir Alex Ferguson awaits news on striker Dimitar Berbatov (ankle), but Manchester United are without defender Nemanja Vidic (knee) for the season. Michael Carrick returns. Wolves welcome back Karl Henry from suspension but defender Jody Craddock (hamstring) is a doubt, with Roger Johnson standing by for a return.

Norwich v Newcastle

Odds: Home 7-5; Draw 12-5, Away 15-8.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1 10.20pm)

Team news: Zak Whitbread (hamstring) returns to contention for Norwich, with Ritchie de Laet (back) out. Newcastle have a number of defensive worries, with Steven Taylor (Achilles) and Mike Williamson (arm/ankle) out and Fabricio Coloccini (thigh) a doubt. Danny Guthrie (groin) and Cheick Tioté (knee) are also out, but Jonas Gutierrez returns.

Swansea v Fulham

Odds: Home 8-5; Draw 9-4, Away 9-5.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1 10.20pm)

Team news: Joe Allen is suspended for Swansea after being sent off at Blackburn last week, with Kemy Agustien, Wayne Routledge and Luke Moore in contention to replace him. Danny Graham and Steven Caulker also return. Danny Murphy and Simon Davies could feature for Fulham, but Damien Duff (calf) and Chris Baird (personal) do not travel.

West Bromwich v Wigan

Odds: Home 4-6; Draw 11-4, Away 4-1.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1 10.20pm)

Team news: West Bromwich have no new injury concerns, with Zoltan Gera (knee) the only major absentee. Shane Long continues to defy a groin problem. Defender Antolin Alcaraz returns from a three-match suspension for Roberto Martinez's visitors, with Emmerson Boyce also pushing for a recall. Hugo Rodallega could return up front.

Sunderland v Blackburn

Odds: Home 5-6; Draw 5-2, Away 7-2.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 1.30pm (Highlights BBC 1 10.30pm)

Team news: Martin O'Neill has a number of concerns for his first match as Sunderland manager, with Nicklas Bendtner (groin) and Phil Bardsley (ankle) doubts and Lee Cattermole suspended. Blackburn will give late checks to Martin Olsson (hamstring) and Ruben Rochina (muscle/teeth). Steven Nzonzi is suspended and Ryan Nelsen short of fitness.

Stoke v Tottenham

Odds: Home 12-5; Draw 12-5, Away 11-10.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 4pm (Highlights BBC 1 10.30pm)

Team news Jermaine Pennant and Rory Delap may return for Stoke after missing last week's win at Everton, but Andy Wilkinson (back) is a doubt. Tottenham will give late tests to Jermain Defoe (hamstring) and Gareth Bale (foot), but Ledley King (knee) misses out and Sandro (groin) is struggling for Harry Redknapp's side.

Chelsea v Man City

Odds: Home 7-5; Draw 12-5, Away 15-8.

Kick-off: Monday, 8pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights Sky Sports 1 1am, Tuesday)

Team news: David Luiz is suspended for Chelsea after picking up five bookings, with Jose Bosingwa (thigh) making a timely return. Josh McEachran (ankle) has returned to training. Micah Richards (calf) is unlikely to return for Manchester City, with Aleksandar Kolarov (groin) also out..

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