ANOTHER cup fixture, another victory and another reason for Gus Poyet to voluntarily recede his own hairline.
The contrast between the Sunderland struggling in the Premier League and the Sunderland excelling in both cup competitions is so stark that it’s almost alarming.
Last week the Uruguayan has vented his frustrations at such a dearth in consistency.
There’s no doubt that the cup competitions have been of benefit to the Black Cats.
The confidence they have gained from seeing off the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United to reach the Capital One Cup final has definitely translated to league performances and the team’s best spell of the season in the league was, arguably, in and around the time of the semi-final matches against United.
The reason Gus Poyet’s men still find themselves entrenched in the relegation battle is that lack of consistency.
If they gave points for winning rounds in the cup competitions then Sunderland would be on exactly the same total they are currently on, having only played a third of the games they have in the league.
It’s startling, quite frankly.
As Sunderland head into the most important part of their Premier League season, however, this cup success can suddenly look like somewhat of a hindrance to the Black Cats’ ultimate goal of Premier League survival.
Progressing to the League Cup final means the home game against West Brom has to be rearranged and overcoming Southampton in the FA Cup this weekend leaves the away fixture at Liverpool to receive the same treatment.
Throw in the postponed match against Manchester City and potential FA Cup replays and Sunderland are facing a serious fixture congestion at the tail end of the season.
Just this week, Hull boss Steve Bruce lambasted the fixture pile-up his side are facing after their draw with Brighton in the FA Cup and it is likely to be worse for Sunderland.
UEFA regulations state that no Premier League games can be rearranged for the same night as a Champions League or Europa League round of fixtures and so this means none of the Black Cats’ games can be rearranged for before April.
This could leave Gus Poyet’s men facing the exhaustive prospect of playing Saturday-Wednesday from April till the end of the season. The only other option would be to play on the Monday of a European football week, but playing Saturday and Monday is something you’d imagine Poyet and his counterparts will be keen to avoid.
You only have to look at Wigan last season to see the impact that such a hectic period of fixtures can have.
While they might have had the glory of lifting the FA Cup, they ultimately lost their Premier League status as their small squad couldn’t keep up with the demands of playing so regularly.
The fact that the Latics, in prior years, tended to save their relegation-repelling form for the last third of the season suggests how fatal an impact their run in the FA Cup may well have had.
Poyet does, however, have an arguably stronger and deeper squad at his disposal than Roberto Martinez had at Wigan last season, but as their form in the first half of the season showed, not all of the 23-man squad seems wholly capable of providing cover to be confident in.
When the latter isn’t so keenly getting himself sent off for early baths, John O’Shea and Wes Brown are the first choice centre halves, but given their track record with injury, they may not react too well physically to the constant stream of 90 minutes thrown their way around April time.
That said, Santiago Vergini made his first start against Southampton and looked a very competent replacement for Brown. Poyet won’t want to be relying too much on the wayward Valentin Roberge, however.
The midfield is well covered and the signing of Liam Bridcutt has the potential to be one of the signings of the window. Poyet also boasts a strong set of strikers after the arrival of Nacho Scocco and the return of Connor Wickham from an impressive loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday. Add to this the likes of Fabio Borini, Jozy Altidore and the soon-to-be fit again Steven Fletcher and it’s clear that Poyet isn’t lacking depth up front.
The squad, in terms of numbers, is certainly there to cope with the congestion. Whether the mentality and the ability to keep performance levels up under such strain is there also, only time will tell.
Whatever happens from here on in, in terms of the cup competitions, the Sunderland faithful will be grateful for the highs that their team’s exploits have provided. They won’t look too fondly on their cup runs, however, if they find themselves watching Championship football next season. Just ask Wigan fans.
•This article was written by FTBpro’s Andrew Easton
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