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Three Players to Watch: Matchday 45 vs. Sunderland

Cardiff has given Fulham another lifeline. Can the boys take care of business in the final home fixture of the season?

Sunderland v Burton Albion - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

In one of the most important games of the campaign, Fulham was able to ride barrage after barrage from a Millwall side that was really going for it. If anything, the 3-0 final score by the good guys really hid the story that it really should have been much closer than it actually was. If it wasn't for a Jake Cooper header that went off the post instead of the back of the net and a Jed Wallace foul that disallowed a George Saville goal, Fulham genuinely would have been in loads of trouble. Instead, Fulham made do with the luck, whether fair or not, that was given to them and displayed a second-half masterclass that is starting to become familiar with this team. It has to be a reminder how special this group of players is with the way they performed, especially in times of stress and perseverance.

Now that the job is done by facing two of their toughest foes, now they have to face a club that simply in one of the darkest places imaginable. It’s one thing to get relegated from the Championship. It’s another to be relegated from the Championship after being relegated from the Premier League. That is where Sunderland are and the chances of them and their supporters to climb out of the misery that they are in will take years, if not a generation for them to recover. Only time will tell what damage has been done, but it is quite clear that the Stadium of Light has been one of the most depressing places to go to throughout this decade. Fortunately for the players, they will play their next game away from home, but that still doesn’t mean that the pain of being relegated will still not be out of their minds.

In minutia, the club hasn’t been the same since the losses to James Vaughan, Didier Ndong and especially Lewis Grabban at the January transfer window. While the team has performed quite well for a relegated side based off of expected goals (22.7-24.0 since the start of February), they simply don’t have the depth in talent to be able to cash in up front, nor do they have the creativity in midfield to break the opposition down. Along with that, Chris Coleman’s side has maintained their conservative 4-1-4-1 formation over the past month. Add in the fact that aging players like John O’Shea and Lee Cattermole being a part of the spine of the team as well as using three goalkeepers with significant playing time and you see a senior team that just needs a complete overhaul everywhere. It’s just too bad they will have to do it in League One.

With that in mind, here are the three players to watch in tonight’s fixture.

George Honeyman

All data from whoscored.com

Outside of Aiden McGeady, it is the 23-year old academy graduate who remains with the club and leads them in offensive contributions (6 goals, 2 assists). And while he has been a major contributor and one of the few positives for Sunderland this season, his radar shows how much work he still needs to do to be a complete footballer. Now that he is playing mostly in the center of midfield, his defensive contributions are showing quite well. However, his 1.26 shots per 90 minutes are simply not enough for him to be a consistent performer offensively. It Honeyman’s 13.3% goal conversion rate, his six goals will be much smaller. Sunderland will hope to stay with the club as the last year of his contract will come in 2019. If Honeyman stays, his development will be critical to the club’s short-term success.

Ashley Fletcher

All data from whoscored.com

Next up has been the air-apparent to Grabban since he left for Aston Villa. Unfortunately for Sunderland, the 22-year old Fletcher is a Middlesbrough loanee so it is quite doubtful for him to stay with the club after this season. He has done his best to make an impact for the club, but he just isn’t productive enough to be a solid center forward at Championship level. To put things in perspective, Fletcher’s radar looks similar to Chris Martin’s in his loan season with Fulham. While he has got what it takes to score in bunches, his ability to keep his shot on target is not good enough at this stage of his career. However, Fletcher has been the one center forward being picked every time for Coleman, so he will be a key figure should Sunderland be able to unleash anything in attack tonight.

John O’Shea

All data from whoscored.com

Lastly, I do want to talk about a player that isn’t so much a talented player now but has had a long career that should be recognized. While John O’Shea may not be planning on retiring after this season, the 36-year old is on the final year of his contract. Unless he truly is one of the most loyal servants in all of football, I seriously can’t imagine the former Manchester United center back and 116-capped Ireland International wanting to continue playing for a club that is about to be in the third tier of English football. So would any club sign a player with this much experience or would they refuse to bring in someone that may just have too many miles on his body? To his credit, O’Shea has had his strongest effort in aerial duels won with 4.22 per 90 minutes in the nine years of data capture from whoscored.com. It will be fascinating to see how the rest of his footballing story will play out. The Championship has been full of aging stars like him before and it only takes one club to offer a contract.