Big-match analysis: Sunderland must be cute in shuffling pack for Spurs crunch

Jozy Altidore (centre) will hope to start again tomorrow after scoring in midweek

Jozy Altidore (centre) will hope to start again tomorrow after scoring in midweek

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IF PROOF were needed of pre-season encounters being a notoriously unreliable indicator, Sunderland’s July victory over Spurs is Exhibit A.

Paolo Di Canio’s side were excellent in vanquishing Tottenham 3-1 in the Hong Kong mud bath, yet when the Premier League started for real, it took Sunderland until October’s Wear-Tyne derby to record a first victory.

But it was perhaps an indication that Tottenham were not the same side who still harboured hopes of Champions League qualification on the final day of last season against the Black Cats.

Gareth Bale has proved to be an irreplaceable lost asset in Andre Villas-Boas’s armoury.

Yes, there are plenty of other quality performers at White Hart Lane and more than £90million was invested trying to replace the Welshman’s contribution.

But without Bale, Spurs are different gravy.

Fortune and the reflexes of Hugo Lloris ensured Spurs avoided extending their winless league run to five games in Wednesday night’s victory at Sunderland’s relegation rivals, Fulham.

Yet tomorrow’s clash is an opportunity for Gus Poyet’s side; far more so than the visit of an exceptional Chelsea side in midweek.

Spurs are likely to be without their best defender after Jan Vertonghen went over on his ankle at Craven Cottage, while, at the other end, £26m capture Roberto Soldado is struggling for confidence after just one league goal that hasn’t stemmed from a penalty.

Undoubtedly, Sunderland still face an uphill task to avoid a second successive Stadium of Light defeat, but, if they reproduce the quality of their performance against Chelsea, they certainly have a chance.

The problem for Poyet will be fatigue.

When the final whistle sounded on Wednesday, several red and white shirts slumped to the floor in exhaustion.

Poyet does not have the quality or depth of squad which Villas-Boas can muster and the Uruguayan will have to shuffle his pack cutely.

Certainly, the ex-Tottenham midfielder is aware of the demands of playing three games in a week after resting Seb Larsson and Steven Fletcher against Chelsea.

The duo, along with Adam Johnson, Ondrej Celustka and perhaps even Lee Cattermole, must come into Poyet’s thinking as he ponders his options during training today.

Fletcher is the one who may be forced to play second fiddle though.

As a natural finisher and last season’s top scorer, it seems inconceivable to be leaving out the Scot with Sunderland possessing the second worst goal tally in the table.

But Jozy Altidore showed the sort of form on Wednesday which persuaded Sunderland to shell out £6million during the summer.

The American was physical, held the ball up, linked play and produced a clinical finish on the turn to lift the weight off his shoulders of a first league goal in red and white.

Surely Poyet must stick with Altidore, and given the head coach is unlikely to suddenly return to a front two in a game as testing as this, Fletcher is likely to be limited to a place on the bench.

This is a deceptively big game for Sunderland.

Poyet’s side would not be disgraced if they succumbed to the side lying in sixth spot in the table.

But after taking just a solitary point from the last three games, Sunderland badly need a numerical boost prior to two pivotal games against fellow strugglers West Ham and Norwich.

Should Sunderland come away empty-handed again, then the Black Cats will be running out of time to register the points needed to remain in contention at the turn of the year.

Verdict: Draw

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