AFTER a rather torrid second half to 2013, the new year has brought with it a lot more promise for all those concerned at Sunderland. Since their home defeat at the hands of Aston Villa, the Black Cats have gone undefeated in the league, a run which has featured a dominant 4-1 away win against Fulham and a stirring two-goal comeback at home to Southampton.
Pair this with the fact that Gus Poyet’s side have reached their first major final in over 20 years after their Capital One Cup semi-final success over Manchester United and there is reason for Sunderland supporters to be cautiously optimistic.
This isn’t to say that things aren’t still looking perilous. Currently 19th and two points adrift of safety, the second half of the season carries several hugely important games for Sunderland, mostly at the Stadium of Light. With away games against all of the current top five still to come, there are certain games in which victory will be crucial if Sunderland wish to maintain their Premier League status.
The following are the most important games coming up for the Black Cats:
1st February - Newcastle United (A)
It doesn’t take long for the big games to kick in and they don’t get much bigger than this. The reverse fixture, which saw Fabio Borini’s screamer seal victory for the Black Cats, was a rare high point in the first half of the season and the side’s first league win of the current campaign. A famous double over local rivals Newcastle would surely provide a huge boost for Gus Poyet’s men and set them up for a push up the table. A defeat could be a serious dent to the confidence of the team.
2nd March - Manchester City (League Cup Final)
Very much the added bonus of the second half of the season. No one can begrudge Sunderland their place in the final after terrific performances against Chelsea and Manchester United. They have to go into the game with the mentality that anything can happen, using Wigan last season as an inspiration. They may well be put to the sword like so many others against City this season, but they cannot allow that to affect their league form. A shock victory would give them huge momentum in their fight against relegation.
15th March - Crystal Palace (H)
Palace have picked up a little since the arrival of Tony Pulis and have gone from a team looking destined to finish 20th to a team that have a genuine chance of survival. The first time these two met this season was a game that typified Paolo Di Canio’s tenure in the 2013/2014 season. Mistakes, a penalty and a sending off all led to a 3-1 defeat and caused the fiery Italian to speak out against several of his players. It was the beginning of the end for Di Canio. This will be a different game as both sides have improved of late, particularly defensively. It is a game Sunderland must win, if only to keep Palace in trouble.
31st March - West Ham (H)
Another home game, another relegation rival, another must win. West Ham, one of the teams currently occupying a place in the bottom three, had a very different League Cup semi-final experience at the hands of Manchester City and so are fully focused on their battle for survival. Sunderland earned a decent point when they travelled to Upton Park last time out and nothing less would do this time around against Sam Allardyce’s team, who you can’t help but feel will be there or thereabouts come the end of the season.
26th April - Cardiff City (H)
The third and, more than likely, last of the relegation “six pointers” comes in Sunderland’s second to last home game of the season against Cardiff. The newly promoted Welsh side currently occupy bottom place after their recent defeat to Manchester United. They have money to spend and have brought several players in during this window, but it is always a risk when it comes to needing time for the team to gel. Right now, they seem favourites to go down and could well be relegated by the time this game comes around. That can often lead to complacency from opposing teams and should Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side already be on their way back down to the Championship, the Black Cats must not fall to that.
11th May - Swansea City (H)
The final game of the season brings a winnable home fixture, something which could be crucial in a season where everything at stake seems likely to go right to the wire. Despite going through a tough time of late, the Swans are unlikely to be dragged into a relegation scrap and therefore may well have little to play for come the concluding day of the Premier League. Should Gus Poyet’s men not have ensured safety by this point, there are much worse games they could have had to face when in desperate need of points.
•This article was written by FTBpro’s Andrew Easton
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