Wes Brown key to Sunderland survival

Sports Mole assesses how important Wes Brown could be to Sunderland's chances of retaining their Premier League status.

On paper, Sunderland versus Manchester City looked as though it would be a mismatch - the equivalent of a flyweight taking to the ring against a heavyweight champion.

After all, City lined up at the Stadium of Light with Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo up front. As a pairing, the former La Liga duo shared all five of the Citizen's goals against CSKA Moscow last time out.

In the other corner was a Sunderland side that had leaked 22 goals from their 10 Premier League encounters. The outcome appeared to be a no-brainer.

Wes Brown, though, had other ideas. A succession of injuries had robbed the Sunderland centre-back of almost two years, but he returned to the Stadium of Light to make his first Premier League start since January 2012.

Man City's Sergio Aguero and Sunderland's Wes Brown battle for the ball on November 10, 2013© Getty Images

After such a lengthy absence, rustiness could be forgiven. However, Brown comes from the Ledley King and Paul McGrath school of defending. These are two defenders who were plagued by chronic knee problems throughout their careers, but when they crossed the white line on a Saturday, their performances were often the best of any player on the pitch. Brown was cast from the same mould.

Yesterday he was charged with the task of shackling two of Europe's most in-form frontmen. Rather than shirk, he rose to it.

According to Opta, the 34-year-old won 100% of his tackles, made six interceptions in the Sunderland half and completed nine clearances from in and around his own penalty area.

He also showed his worth in possession of the ball, completing 35 of his 44 passes. What's more, it was his lofted ball that caused confusion between City's James Milner and Martin Demichelis for Phil Bardsley to score the only goal of the game.

Wes Brown battles for possession with Samir Nasri on November 10, 2013.© Getty Images

Brown's presence also had a positive impact on his teammates. Sunderland supporters will tell you that John O'Shea has been a liability on occasions, but even he looked assured alongside the former England international. Thirty of the Irishman's 36 passes found their intended targets, while he also made four clean challenges.

"Wes reads the game better than anyone. I don't want to be unfair to John, Carlos [Cuellar] or the rest of the defenders. But he reads the game so well and can see things happening. He's comfortable on the ball as well," Sunderland manager Gus Poyet told the Shields Gazette after the 1-0 win.

Now comes the hard part - keeping Brown fit. Sir Alex Ferguson handed the Longsight-born player his Manchester United debut in May 1998, but from that moment on, Brown seemed to spend as much time on treatment table as he did on the field.

He only managed to make over 30 Premier League appearances in a single campaign once (2007-08), but such was the regard that he was held in by Ferguson that when fit, he started some important fixtures, including the 2008 Champions League final in Moscow where his cross set up Cristiano Ronaldo to open the scoring.

Wes Brown and Cristiano Ronaldo celebrate with the Champions League trophy on May 21, 2008.© Getty Images

But for the medical complaints, it's unlikely that Brown's sale to Sunderland would have been sanctioned in 2011.

"When Wes Brown is fit, he is the best natural defender in the country," Ferguson said in 2009. "I keep thinking he is only 22 or 23 but we were doing a summary of our players' ages and contracts the other day and I saw Wes is 30. He has such a young approach to life which you have to pay tribute to the lad for."

The decision is now Poyet's, but the Uruguayan could do much worse than look at Messrs King and McGrath for inspiration. On a daily basis those two were wrapped up in cotton wool by their managers, who were only too aware of their influence on the team.

If Sunderland are to dig themselves out of the mire, Brown's fitness will be imperative.

Sunderland's Phil Bardsley celebrates moments after scoring the opening goal against Manchester City on November 10, 2013
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