Sunderland-West Ham United Preview
By CHRIS ALTRUDA
(AP) -- LONDON (SE) - It appears to be a straightforward plan for goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen and West Ham United - stop Steven Fletcher, stop Sunderland.
The Hammers try to continue their fast start in their return to the Premier League on Saturday when they host the Black Cats at Upton Park.
West Ham's start in the top flight after a one-season absence has been positive, gaining seven points from their four matches with two wins and a draw. In the 2010-11 season when they were relegated, the Hammers (2-1-1) did not pick up their third win until their 19th match.
West Ham's defence have conceded three goals thus far - all in a loss to Swansea City - and turned in their third clean sheet in Sunday's scoreless draw at Norwich City. Jaaskelainen made nine saves for the shutout, raising his total to a league-leading 22.
"You can see we are continuing to build together as a team and to have three clean sheets in four games is obviously a good start," the Finnish goalkeeper said to the team's official website. "But to come away from home against a good side in Norwich with another clean sheet and another point is very pleasing."
While Jaaskelainen has proven capable of erasing most mistakes, manager Sam Allardyce thinks the Hammers' defence in the outfield also deserves plaudits for working cohesively and buying into his philosophy.
"Being defensively strong is critical because every time you don't concede a goal you know you've got a point at least," he said. "You know for a fact that if you tot up 38 points in a season now, it's likely that you'll be safe as nobody has gone down in the last eight years with that amount."
Jaaskelainen and that backline will run into a stern challenge in Fletcher, who has accounted for all three of Sunderland's goals. The Scottish forward has been ruthlessly efficient for the Black Cats (0-3-0) needing only three shots in the two matches he has played.
Fletcher staked Sunderland to a first-half lead Saturday versus Liverpool in an eventual 1-1 draw at the Stadium of Light. Operating as the lone striker for Martin O'Neill's side, the manager is waiting for Fletcher's teammates to match his effectiveness on the pitch to start turning those draws into victories.
"I'm hoping that as the season goes on and as the side gets stronger Steven Fletcher will not be such a lone figure up the pitch for us," O'Neill told the team's official website. "At times I think it felt like that for him. We can get better and the link-up play will."
Fletcher has played four matches against the Hammers, but none with the Black Cats. While with Burnley, he netted two goals in a 5-3 loss at Upton Park on Nov. 28, 2009.
The last time both teams were in the top flight in the 2010-11 season, Sunderland took all six points and rolled to a 3-0 victory at Upton Park, just their ninth win in 36 all-time matches there. Both teams, though, are in the midst of streaks that would appear to favour the Hammers, who have outscored opponents 15-1 in their last five home league matches dating to last season when they were in the Championship.
Sunderland are winless in their last 11 overall matches (0-8-3) and also are 0-5-4 in their last nine road matches. Another draw would make the Black Cats the second team this season to start with four draws in the Premier League along with Stoke City. The Potters were the first to accomplish the feat since the 1992-93 Crystal Palace squad.
Updated September 20, 2012