Premier League preview: Sunderland v Fulham
Sunderland's underwhelming season looks set to deteriorate into a relegation fight as they prepare for a home match with Fulham on Saturday.
The arrival of Martin O'Neill as manager in December 2011 prompted an upturn in Sunderland's form and gave fans cause for optimism after several years of stagnation under Steve Bruce.
But despite the arrival of striker Steven Fletcher and winger Adam Johnson for big money in the off-season, Sunderland have failed to impress so far in 2012/13.
They sit 15th in the Premier League standings, just five points outside the relegation zone following a run of four matches without a win.
O'Neill's men have tasted defeat in each of their past three fixtures, going down 2-1 away to West Bromwich Albion last time out.
The outlook is somewhat brighter for Fulham, albeit only just.
The west London team occupy 11th spot on the table, three points better off than Sunderland. Their healthier position is down to some improved form of late, with a respectable return of two wins, one draw and one defeat from their past four league games.
There was no shame in that solitary defeat, 1-0 at home to title favourites Manchester United, and they followed it up with a worthy point away to Norwich and a 1-0 win at home to Stoke last Saturday.
Fulham manager Martin Jol may be confident of making it two league wins in succession for the first time since September, with shaky Sunderland seemingly ripe for the taking.
But to do so Fulham will have to overcome their uninspiring away form, and register what would be just their third Premier League victory on the road this term.
Jol will be missing midfielders Kerim Frei (groin) and Mahamadou Diarra (knee) for the long trip to the Stadium of Light, but versatile wideman Kieran Richardson is nearing a return to action.
For Sunderland, defender Wes Brown (knee) and on-loan fullback Danny Rose (hamstring) are out, while the game is likely to arrive too soon for captain and midfielder Lee Cattermole (knee) to feature.