Big-match verdict: Double header of six-pointers vital to Sunderland survival hopes

Wes Brown, here taking care of Sergio Aguero, will boost Sunderland's defence by returning against Palace.

Wes Brown, here taking care of Sergio Aguero, will boost Sunderland's defence by returning against Palace.

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HOPELESS. There was no more appropriate description of Sunderland’s perilous situation after gifting Crystal Palace what would be their only win of the first three months of the season, back in August.

The seeds of destruction had been sown earlier, but that fateful evening at Selhurst Park was the moment which sent Sunderland on a runaway locomotive towards the dregs of the Premier League table.

Paolo Di Canio would never recover the fragile relationship with the dressing room after his public scolding of captain John O’Shea, and Sunderland displayed neither the quality nor organisation to suggest they were heading anyway other than the Championship, even at that tender stage of the campaign.

The only possible solace was that Sunderland would relieve Di Canio from the reins before it was too late.

Even sacking him two games later may ultimately be too late come May.

That tally of just one point from the opening eight Premier League encounters continues to hamstring Sunderland’s attempts to beat the drop.

Gus Poyet may have performed minor miracles to give the second-bottom Black Cats even a sniff of survival, but tomorrow’s return meeting with Palace will again be pivotal in propelling the club one way or the other.

There is a sense of “now or never” surrounding this weekend’s encounter and the trip to Norwich City seven days later.

A haul of four or six points would re-inject that upwards momentum into Sunderland’s survival bid, particularly with the games at hand at their disposal, albeit two of them are away to Manchester City and Liverpool.

But a failure to get at least one win from the back-to-back encounters against their relegation rivals, and Sunderland will be facing an uphill task to register the four victories which are likely to be sufficient to beat the drop.

They are at least facing a side whose philosophy this season seems to have been one of win or bust.

Tony Pulis has more than equalled Poyet’s achievements at Sunderland by implementing a remarkable turnaround at Selhurst Park.

Regardless of the reservations over the former Stoke manager’s philosophy, he has the knack of putting points on the board.

But Palace have drawn just three games all season.

Like Sunderland, there will be a “winner takes it all” mentality in the away dressing room, particularly as victory would take Pulis’ men through the psychologically comforting 30-point barrier.

Sunderland, looking to end a run of three successive defeats, have notoriously struggled in these high-stakes encounters though, after only managing to triumph against Stoke and Fulham, among the sides in the bottom half.

What Poyet’s side CANNOT do is concede a cheap goal.

Palace have netted just 19 times in 28 league games this season.

If Sunderland can get their noses in front, then there is a huge opportunity to hold onto that advantage.

The return of Wes Brown and Marcos Alonso will undoubtedly sure up Sunderland’s defence after the familiar kamikaze mistakes at Hull last weekend, and they will be followed by the rest of those who were rested at the KC Stadium.

Vito Mannone, Ki Sung-Yueng and Fabio Borini will be back in the fold.

The question mark is how Poyet uses the latter.

None of the front three against Hull – Steven Fletcher, Nacho Scocco and Emanuele Giaccherini – made a case to be retained in the starting XI and, ideally, Poyet would revert to using Borini in the central role in which he excelled at Wembley.

But that presents two problems.

First, who fills the on-loan Liverpool man’s slot on the left-hand side of midfield?

At home, it’s difficult to envisage playing Jack Colback there, as was the case in the Capital One Cup final.

And secondly, using one central striker has hardly equalled an abundance of goals at the Stadium of Light this season.

Does Poyet have to be brave and go back to basics with two frontmen?

It’s a big call for the Sunderland boss, particularly as his team selection at Hull has prompted so much debate this week.

But get it right tomorrow, and hope will blossom on Wearside once more.

Verdict: Home win

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