Premier League | Stadium of Light | Sat 15 Mar | 3pm
The dictionary definition of a relegation six-pointer.
Mathematicians and pedants will rightly point out that nothing will be decided at Sunderland's Stadium of Light on Saturday. Nobody will stay up and nobody will go down as a result of this one game, but you can’t help but feel it could well be a defining moment in the season, particularly for the hosts. With all three points, Sunderland will leapfrog their visitors and could end the day as high as 16th with a spring in their step. Lose it, and they could find themselves cut adrift at the bottom, with only Fulham for company and games rapidly running out.
- Hull 3-0 S'land (FAC)
- Man City 3-1 S'land (LC)
- Arsenal 4-1 S'land (Prem)
- S'land 1-0 So'ton (FAC)
- S'land 0-2 Hull (Prem)
CRYSTAL PALACE FORM
- Palace 0-1 So'ton (Prem)
- Swansea 1-1 Palace (Prem)
- Palace 0-2 Man Utd (Prem)
- Palace 3-1 WBA (Prem)
- Arsenal 2-0 Palace (Prem)
And yet, it's not all doom and gloom. When Gus Poyet took over from crackpot dictator Paolo Di Canio last October, the Uruguayan described Premier League survival as an "impossible job", so he must be quite happy being just a single win away from safety with 12 games remaining. That's two – and in some cases three – games more than the teams around them, you may note, because Sunderland haven't played a game of Premier League football since February 22, due to their dogged but ultimately fruitless pursuit of silver cups.
Games in hand and destiny being in their own hands is a positive, then, but Sunderland find themselves in terrible form at a time when they need to start picking up points. That last league game was a 4-1 thumping at Arsenal in which Sunderland played like they had their minds on Wembley. Against Manchester City they exceeded expectations, losing the game but winning plaudits, but against Hull in the FA Cup they were hopeless, lucky to get nil in a 3-0 trousering.
Poyet tinkered with his side for that game and will no doubt revert back to his Wembley XI as close as form and fitness allow. But he does have one major headache in the shape of Lee Cattermole. Dare Poyet risk the lunging liability in a game of this magnitude, or will he take the more sensible approach of playing Liam Bridcutt? Poyet seems like a sensible man so will surely opt for the latter, which should mean Sunderland keep 11 men on the pitch for most if not all of the game. And for a team struggling as much as Crystal Palace, that is bad news.
Having begun the season with one win and nine defeats from their first 10 games (and that win coming at home to Sunderland), Palace might consider 16th at this stage to be better than most people expected. And it is, but it's still a concern. A single point from the last nine in the Premier League suggests a team running out of steam as the season wears on, particularly as that point was stolen from Swansea in an act of daylight robbery.
Pulis' magic motivational dust seems to have worn off, and against Southampton last time Saturday it wasn't just the defeat (0-1) that had the locals chuntering, but the fact they mustered just one shot on goal all game.
It’s an ongoing issue: Palace have scored fewer goals than any other team this season (19 in 28) and are well on track to beat the Premier League’s all-time record; Leeds' 28 goals in 1996/97. Perhaps most disconcertingly of all is the fact that for much of the game against Southampton, Palace played like Stoke under Tony Pulis. Sadly for them though, a really crap, ineffective version.
For last weekend’s FA Cup clash at Hull, Sunderland made six changes – Steven Fletcher, Ignacio Scocco, Oscar Ustari, Santiago Vergini, Andrea Dossena and Emanuele Giaccherini all came in, with Vito Mannone, Wes Brown, Marcos Alonso, Adam Johnson, Ki Sung-Yueng and Fabio Borini making way. Having witnessed a truly witless performance, expect several of those players to trade places again. Crucially for Poyet, the knocks that kept Wes Brown and Craig Gardner out against Hull have cleared up. "Craig is back in full training with us, and Wes has trained for the last three days," confirmed the Black Cats boss.
Crystal Palace’s hopes haven’t been helped by the fact top scorer Marouane 'five goals' Chamakh will be out for two to three weeks with his hamstring injury. Everyone else is fit, though.
Player to watch: Adam Johnson (Sunderland)
Poyet believes Fletcher (3 goals) is key to Sunderland's survival hopes. Others would suggest Borini's pace, movement and ability to stretch defences poses more of a threat. But it's hard to see past Johnson – his 7 goals making him Sunderland's dangerous individual, and four assists making him the club's most creative. A hat-trick in the 4-1 win at Fulham made the most headlines, with his 3 shots, 3 goals return showing a rare efficiency in front of goal and making up for his team-mates' return of 7 shots/3 on target/1 goal.
More recently, against Southampton at home, Johnson led the way in shots on goal (2 shots, 1 goal) and attacking-third passes (9 from 12). He only created a single chance in a game dominated by Southampton in possession terms, but that resulted in Borini's goal. Against Stoke in the following game, Johnson was again the difference, scoring the only goal of the game. Last time out in the league, Arsenal had clearly identified his threat. Johnson saw little of the ball and asked no questions in the final third. It's probably no coincidence Sunderland ended up soundly beaten.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- Palace 3-1 S'land (Prem, Aug 13)
- S'land 0-0 Palace (Ch, Jan 07)
- Palace 1-0 S'land (Ch, Dec 06)
- S'land 2-1 Palace (FAC, Jan 05)
- S'land 2-1 Palace (Ch, May 04)
"If we do this every week, I'm sure we'll stay in the league," said Poyet after the League Cup final defeat to Man City, referring more to the application than the actual result. "I cannot control everything," he admitted, "but what I will say to our fans is that we'll do everything to prepare a team to beat Crystal Palace." Quietly impressive, but made to look better by virtue of simply not being Di Canio, Poyet is facing the biggest test of his managerial career, describing Saturday's game as "the biggest" of the season.
Palace boss Pulis agrees. "We have got 10 cup finals now, 10 very, very tough games and they're all cup finals for us," he said. "Every game that we play at home, we have to try and get points from." Given that on Saturday they're away, that sounds like he's given up hope of getting anything. And given that they have to entertain Chelsea, Liverpool and Man City at Selhurst Park, that sounds ominous. Pulis's proud record of never having been relegated during his management career could well be tested.
Facts and figures
- Palace have scored just 6 away goals this season and 13 of their 17 defeats, home or away, have been to nil, including twelve 0-1 or 0-2 losses.
- 7 of Sunderland’s 8 home wins since the start of last season have come to nil, including five 1-0 victories.
- 6 of Sunderland’s last 8 home games against bottom-six sides have had fewer than 3 goals.
- 10 of Palace’s last 11 matches have had fewer than 3 goals with 6 being goalless at half-time.
Best Bet: Correct Score 1-0 @ 6.25
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Home advantage and slightly superior firepower should see Sunderland edge things. 2-0.