The FourFourTwo Preview: Sunderland vs Cardiff
Six points up for grabs here! Not literally, but you know what we mean...
This shouldn't be happening to Sunderland. Not two weeks ago, Gus Poyet's team were glued to the bottom of the Premier League following a 5-1 mauling at Spurs. Their next two games - against title-chasers Manchester City and Chelsea - were considered write-offs, their chances of survival even less optimistic.
- Chelsea 1-2 S'land (Prem)
- Man City 2-2 S'land (Prem)
- S'land 0-1 Everton (Prem)
- Spurs 5-1 S'land (Prem)
- S'land 1-2 West Ham (Prem)
- Cardiff 1-1 Stoke (Prem)
- So'ton 0-1 Cardiff (Prem)
- Cardiff 0-3 Palace (Prem)
- WBA 3-3 Cardiff (Prem)
- Cardiff 3-6 Liverpool (Prem)
How quickly things have changed. At the Etihad, Sunderland squeezed the life out of a City team clearly still rattled by defeat at Liverpool. Only a blunder by Vito Mannone prevented them from securing a shock 2-1 win.
Against Chelsea, meanwhile, they repeated the trick, only with more success, when a second-half penalty left Jose Mourinho thanking officialdom for ruining their season. As unthinkable as it would have sounded a few weeks back, momentum is with Sunderland during this most vital of periods. A result against fellow relegation candidates Cardiff will strengthen their survival push.
But Cardiff are having a mini revival of their own. A reinvigorating 1-0 win against Southampton was followed up with a 1-1 home draw against Stoke last weekend. For the most part in that fixture, it was the visiting team who looked stronger, though referee Howard Webb did disallow what looked like a match-winner from defender Cala.
Locals are billing their next three games - Sunderland, Newcastle and Chelsea - as The Great Escape. The good news is that while Poyet has discovered an unexpected reserve of confidence within his players, Alan Pardew has lost his at St James' Park.
Chelsea, meanwhile, might be looking to the Champions League final on the last day of the season. The vital points required to save Cardiff could arrive in the coming weeks rather than at the Stadium of Light.
At Stamford Bridge Poyet was able to name an unchanged side from the 2-2 draw against City; he has no fresh injury concerns. Likewise Cardiff also went into the Stoke game unchanged and have yet to report any absentees through injury.
Player to watch: Fabio Borini (Sunderland)
There was much handwringing regarding the nature of the loan system when Borini scored the decisive penalty against Chelsea last weekend. The vibrant winger has a parent club - Liverpool; his spot-kick might have conceivably handed them the title in a fascinating fixture in which Sunderland deserved the spoils.
At the heart of their play is Borini, a player who can fizz with enthusiasm and skill when others around him look frightened. He has scored important goals this season, including the opener in the League Cup final. He will need to be at his best here, especially if he's to deliver the service to in-form striker Connor Wickham.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- Cardiff 2-2 S'land (Prem, Dec 13)
- Cardiff 0-1 S'land (Ch, Mar 07)
- S'land 1-2 Cardiff (Ch, Oct 06)
- S'land 2-1 Cardiff (Ch, Feb 05)
- Cardiff 0-2 S'land (Ch, Dec 04)
Two weeks ago Poyet was a manager in freefall; he spoke despairingly of bad luck and unfortunate breaks. Following the Chelsea win - Mourinho's first league home defeat - his battling spirit seems to have returned. "Me, the way I play football all my life and the way I coach and the way I’m going to be for the rest of my life, you fight to the end," he said. "I was a person on the pitch if it was a corner in the last minute I had a feeling the ball would drop on my head. That was me. So why am I going to change now? I know I’m a little bit older and losing the hair a little bit with these kind of games and decisions, but apart from that I am still the same person, so we are not going to stop."
For Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a player once used to delivering vital goals in a game's dying breaths, his faith in maths has given him cause for optimism. Four more points will be enough to keep them in the Premier League, or so he reckons. "I've said before that we need a miracle, but that's not needed now," he says. "It's two very good performances in the next two games to give us a chance going into the last game, against Chelsea."
Facts and figures
- Sunderland have won only 1 of their last 11 home games against bottom-half teams.
- 5 of Cardiff’s 8 trips to bottom-half sides this season have had fewer than 3 goals.
- 5 of Sunderland’s last 6 home games against bottom-six teams have had fewer than 2 goals.
- Cardiff have drawn the first half in 9 of their last 15 away matches.
Sunderland to maintain their strong finish to 2013/14. A 3-1 home win.