Big-match verdict: High noon showdown’s ultimate test of Sunderland’s desire

Phil Bardsley will hope for a recall when Sunderland face Cardiff on Sunday
Phil Bardsley will hope for a recall when Sunderland face Cardiff on Sunday
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SUNDERLAND’S Stadium of Light meetings against those in the bottom half have followed a sorry pattern this season.

Either the Black Cats have meandered aimlessly towards a goalless draw, or worse, they have been hit by a sucker punch from their own mistakes at the other end, invariably from a set piece.

Only January’s nervy win over 10-man Stoke City has broken that mould.

The root cause of Sunderland’s home sickness has been their inability to break down sides who arrive on Wearside intent on putting 11 men behind the ball, frustrate the hosts and then eventually look for openings on the counter-attack.

The guile needed to solve the problems has been badly missing.

Last month’s stalemate with a decidedly average Crystal Palace side – who have subsequently enjoyed a remarkable rise away from danger – was a prime example, as Gus Poyet’s side confined the visitors to their own half, yet still couldn’t find that elusive opening goal.

But Sunday’s noon showdown may follow a slightly different pattern.

Let’s face it, it has to if Sunderland are to stand any chance of making the most of a remarkable four points on the road at Manchester City and Chelsea.

A draw is not much better for Cardiff than for Sunderland.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer claimed earlier this week that 36 points would be enough to survive.

He’s almost certainly right.

But that means Cardiff need two wins from their final three games – trips to Sunderland and Newcastle, followed by a final-day visit of Chelsea.

Sunday’s encounter is clearly one to target for half of that relegation-busting tally.

Solskjaer’s side will hardly go gung-ho in the early stages, particularly as every scouting report landing on the Norwegian’s desk will have said the same thing about facing Sunderland on the road.

But Cardiff need to show some attacking ambition too after netting just 12 times on the road this season – the second lowest tally in the league.

Poyet will hope that creates some gaps for Sunderland to exploit.

After the confidence spawned from scoring twice at the Etihad and again at Stamford Bridge, Sunderland’s players will surely fancy their chances of making the most of those opportunities too.

Yes, there is almighty pressure riding on Poyet’s men for this game, yet, on the flip side of the coin, it’s a completely unexpected pressure. Sunderland are back from the dead.

The rise of Connor Wickham should provide Sunderland’s attack with more punch.

At last there is a focal point up front; a platform from which the Black Cats can build.

The crucial factor will be whether Sunderland’s midfield and wide men can make sufficient runs off Wickham to stretch Cardiff’s defence.

Those players are all likely to be the same as the ones who started at Chelsea.

The only selection dilemma Poyet really faces is whether to recall Phil Bardsley to the starting line-up after the full-back completed his two-game ban.

But given that Santiago Vergini has looked a far more comfortable specimen at right-back during Bardsley’s absence, Poyet will almost certainly name an unchanged side for the third successive game – the longest run he has gone without tinkering during his Sunderland tenure.

Solskjaer will keep his changes to a minimum too; just one expected with one of the attack-minded duo of Craig Bellamy or Wilfried Zaha pencilled in to take the place of Kim Bo-Kyung out wide.

Ominously, that will see former Sunderland striker Fraizer Campbell lead the line for the Bluebirds, with another ex-Black Cat, Kenwyne Jones, on the bench.

But this game of games is not about ghosts of the past.

If Sunderland want to stand any chance of achieving one of the most remarkable escapes in Premier League history, they need to exorcise their current demons.

The hoodoo which has plagued Sunderland at the Stadium of Light all season has to be overcome and, with the potential to move out of the relegation zone by beating Cardiff – if results go their way tomorrow – there are obvious rewards.

Some will half-expect Sunderland to choke again in the face of a “winnable” game.

Yet a determination has been evident in Sunderland’s ranks over the last fortnight, even including the unfortunate defeat against Everton in their previous home outing.

This is the ultimate test of how much Sunderland’s players really do want to remain in the Premier League.

Verdict: Home win

Twitter @youngsunecho

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