Malbranque can kick-start season, says Whitehead

Dean Whitehead, the Sunderland captain, is confident the range of talents in the club's midfield can help them climb the Premier League table.

The arrival of Steed Malbranque from Tottenham has brought a new element to that area of the field, where Whitehead, Andy Reid and, more recently, Kieran Richardson have become fixtures. But it is the blend of their individual abilities that most excites Whitehead as the Black Cats attempt to build upon a solid start.

He said: "We have got a great mix. We have got players who are good on the ball, we have got players who can run at players, we have got players who tackle and break the play up. So it's looking quite good at the moment."

Whitehead has been impressed in particular by the impact Malbranque has made. The Frenchman has started all seven of the club's league games to date, and will hope to maintain that record as the Wearsiders head for his former club Fulham this weekend. Whitehead said: "Steed has been very good. You can see he has got quality, a good football brain and he will only bring out the best in other players around him. You give him the ball and you expect something to happen. He does that regularly, so we are looking forward to everyone gelling and kicking on." Dwight Yorke performed the holding role to perfection in Sunderland's last game, a 1-1 draw with Arsenal at the Stadium of Light, to allow Whitehead to push on and wide men Malbranque and Richardson to support lone striker Djibril Cissé.

With Reid's range of passing a real threat to opposing teams, manager Roy Keane has options. Reid cannot force his way into Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni's starting line-up, but Whitehead is a big fan. He said: "He is another player who gets the ball and creates chances. He can pick a pass out."

Sunderland head for Fulham still reflecting upon what might have been after they were denied a famous victory over the Gunners by Cesc Fabregas's injury-time header. Arsenal's visit to the north-east capped a tough start to the season where Keane's men lost to Liverpool Manchester City and Aston Villa. However, their next three fixtures, against sides in the lower reaches of the table, offer more promise.

Fulham have lost their last four games in all competitions, while arch-rivals Newcastle, who make the short trip to Wearside a week on Saturday, ended a run of five consecutive defeats with a 2-2 draw at Everton last time out. Sunderland then head to promoted Stoke, where the new boys' 3-2 win over Villa on 23 August is now a distant memory.

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