Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce says he is still searching for his ideal starting XI as he prepares his side to visit Crystal Palace in the Premier League on Monday.
The Black Cats followed up their morale-boosting derby victory over rivals Newcastle United with two defeats – a thumping 6-2 loss at Everton and a frustrating 1-0 home reverse to Southampton, leaving them with only six points from their first 12 games.
Palace, meanwhile, have 19 points from the same number of matches, which is their best-ever start to a Premier League campaign.
Alan Pardew’s men were in strong form prior to the international break, holding Manchester United to a home draw before beating Liverpool 2-1 at Anfield and inflicting Jurgen Klopp’s first defeat since taking charge.
Sunderland therefore have a tough task on their hands at Selhurst Park, with Allardyce admitting he is yet to discover his best combination of players after four games in charge.
“I am leaving players out and putting others in to try to find a solution,” he told the Sunderland Echo.
“I do not want to do that really, but unfortunately there is no option at this moment in time. I am getting a bit closer to finding that strongest XI, but three weeks since I have been here have been internationals.
“When I first got here there were two suspended and three injuries. Then we got three injuries in the Newcastle game and the Everton game was one I am still trying to get my head around.
“I am still not satisfied with the team and results.”
One plus for Allardyce is that he looks set to have a fully fit squad to choose from after Lee Cattermole (groin) saw a specialist in Germany and is in contention, while Fabio Borini (ankle) and John O’Shea (hamstring) are also expected to be fit.
For Palace, Marouane Chamakh is back after a hamstring problem but Kwesi Appiah (knee) and Dwight Gayle (hamstring) are out, while a late decision will be made on the participation of Bakary Sako (knock).
Pardew watched from a distance as key midfielder Yohan Cabaye played for France against England at Wembley four days after the terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday – which also targeted Les Bleus’ game against Germany at the Stade de France – killed 130 people.
The Palace boss is confident the former Paris Saint-Germain player and defender Martin Kelly – who was in the French capital at the time of the attacks – will be able to play the game.
Pardew said: “We have had conversations with our French players to make sure their nearest and dearest were safe and well, which I can report they are.
“They were obviously affected by the tragic events but I think they all have a willingness to play on Monday and perform to their best abilities.
“Yohan played in the game [at Wembley], he was a little bit lost with the events as you can imagine. I thought the FA did a terrific job and so did the security around the stadium.
“I have not seen a reaction that worries me with Martin. We are all affected by an incident like that. It is the first time terrorism has been involved with football and this is an unwelcome entry for us.”
Key Opta stats:
– There has been a 90th minute goal scored in three of the four Premier League meetings between Crystal Palace and Sunderland.
– Steven Fletcher has scored three goals in four Barclays Premier League appearances against Palace.
– The Black Cats have won just one of their last 15 Premier League games, drawing five and losing nine.
– Palace have scored the highest proportion of goals from set pieces in the top division this season (50 per cent).
– Sunderland have only ever had fewer points after 12 matches in one of their previous 14 Premier League campaigns (five in 2005-06).
– There has been a red card in both of the Premier League meetings between Palace and Sunderland at Selhurst Park.
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