Sunderland set fair to complete the greatest of escapes.
So, what was all the fuss about? A point on Wednesday night and, barring a final-day mathematical miracle that’s not worth wasting breath on, Sunderland will take part in next season’s Premier League. Just a regulation evasion of the trapdoor; nothing much to see here.
Man Utd 0-1 S'land (Prem)
S'land 4-0 Cardiff (Prem)
Chelsea 1-2 S'land (Prem)
Man City 2-2 S'land (Prem)
S'land 0-1 Everton (Prem)
Arsenal 1-0 WBA (Prem)
WBA 1-0 West Ham (Prem)
Man City 3-1 WBA (Prem)
WBA 3-3 Spurs (Prem)
Norwich 0-1 WBA (Prem)
You certainly could have blinked and missed the turnaround of the last few weeks. That Gus Poyet’s side are in this position with two games to play is one thing; that their previous four were at the Etihad Stadium, Stamford Bridge, Old Trafford and a six-pointer against Cardiff is quite another.
The Black Cats had taken one point from eight uniformly dismal league runouts prior to Connor Wickham’s left-field double salvo against Manchester City – and even then, Vito Mannone’s late gift to ex-Arsenal colleague Samir Nasri appeared to have consigned them to the knackers’ yard.
As it happens, that draw has had an incalculable effect on Sunderland’s mojo. While it would stretch the point to say they’ve swashbuckled to the brink of safety, their three subsequent wins have owed much to a level of bravery that hadn’t been at all evident earlier in the season, with Wickham’s impact coaxing similar from his peers.
Seb Larsson and Adam Johnson have remembered themselves, while Jack Colback and Lee Cattermole have snapped and harried away with renewed vigour.
Emanuele Giaccherini has made some vital contributions from the bench, and even Santiago Vergini has stepped up to the plate after a comical first few weeks.
Sunderland are getting on the ball, using it efficiently and, at long last, fearing nobody – Fabio Borini’s late shot against the bar at Old Trafford came after a move of at least 20 passes, amply demonstrating the composure with which they’ve faced down their task.
West Brom shouldn’t send too many shivers down Mackem spines, then, but a degree of caution would be wise: you probably wouldn’t label Sunderland home bankers against anyone just yet.
Besides, Pepe Mel’s team have, in their understated way, eked out a path to survival after appearing to be on an inexorably downward spiral during his first two months in charge.
These days they give little away and, while short of star turns, appear organised and compact throughout. They never really looked like causing a scene at Arsenal on Sunday but, as has been the case of late, didn’t quite let the game run away from them either.
They’ll invite Sunderland to take the initiative, looking to cause problems with quick breaks from Morgan Amalfitano, Saido Berahino and ex-Black Cat Stephane Sessegnon, and the match might be decided on which of two factors carries the most weight: West Brom’s lack of genuine need for a result, or any nerves Sunderland feel as the once-improbable sight of the finishing line nears.
If the home side remain intent on doing things the hard way, it could yet be an interesting night.
There aren’t any new concerns for Sunderland, who will probably be unchanged. Carlos Cuellar, Ki Sung-Yueng, Keiren Westwood and Steven Fletcher are still on the sidelines. West Brom wait on Steven Reid, who missed the Arsenal game. There will also be a late call on Billy Jones. Liam Ridgewell and Zoltan Gera won’t make it back for this one, but might have a chance for Sunday’s finale.
Player to watch: Stephane Sessegnon (WBA)
Sessegnon started the season as a Sunderland player, jumping ship ahead of the August transfer deadline and – as fate would dictate – scoring for the Baggies on his debut in a now-infamous 3-0 win over his old side. His influence since has been patchy, but he’s been an important figure in West Brom’s revival since mid-March, providing timely goals against Swansea and Spurs.
A lack of consistent end product has seen him fall short of threatening the top bracket, but he’ll be a buzzing, livewire nuisance behind a lone striker – probably Berahino – on Wednesday, and will be well versed on how to draw out erstwhile team-mate Cattermole’s darker side in the pocket between defence and midfield. Does his relationship with the Black Cats have one more stormy contretemps in prospect?
WBA 3-0 S'land (Prem, Sep 13)
WBA 2-1 S'land (Prem, Feb 13)
S'land 2-4 WBA (Prem, Nov 12)
WBA 4-0 S'land (Prem, Feb 12)
S'land 2-2 WBA (Prem, Oct 11)
Poyet cut an exasperated figure just three-and-a-half weeks ago, after a tight home defeat to Everton. You – and he, one suspects – felt Sunderland’s race was run. The tenor has changed now, and the Uruguayan knows he has the keys to the sweet shop. “What we have done in the last four games is unique, incredible," he beamed after Saturday’s victory. After an inauspicious end to such a promising spell at Brighton, turning the Black Cats’ season around would put his career right back on track.
Sometime novelist Mel counts a page-turner called The Road to the Afterlife among his published works, but Albion’s struggles haven’t amounted to much more than a near-death experience and he must now wait and see if his longer-term vision sits with that of chairman Jeremy Peace. Whether he was first choice (or second – ‘Mel B’, anyone?) after Steve Clarke’s departure is moot, but he has emerged from a tricky league position and some even trickier politics with great dignity.
Facts and figures
- Despite scoring in all 6 Premier League home games against West Brom, Sunderland have won just 1.
- The Baggies have won 7 and drawn 1 of their last 8 PL games against Sunderland, scoring 22 times.
- Connor Wickham has scored 5 and assisted 1 in his last 4 PL games.
- Sunderland can record 4 successive PL wins for the first time since December 2000.
- Sunderland have scored with 3 of their last 4 shots on target in the PL.
- Sunderland have been shown the most red cards this season (7); West Brom are one of three teams yet to pick one up.
More FFT Stats Zone facts
Will Sunderland, desensitised to the scrap by the bravura showings of the last four games, come out like remorseless automatons and put their visitors to the sword? Not quite, but 1-1 will be enough.
Sunderland vs West Brom LIVE ANALYSIS with Stats Zone
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