Every game in the Premier League is crucial.
That is a given, but some have that added edge to them and, undoubtedly, Sunderland’s New Year’s Eve game at Burnley is one such occasion
If there is one thing Burnley possess in bucketloads, it is industry.
Sunderland reach the midway stage of the season tomorrow and their trip to take on the Clarets could be pivotal to their prospects in the second half of the calendar.
This is not a must-win match, though it would be welcome for the Red and Whites, but, as this column has mentioned already this season, it’s a must-not-lose fixture.
Here are three key areas for Sunderland at Turf Moor.
This will be the fourth time this season Sunderland have gone into an away day against a side very much in their vicinity in the Premier League table.
And the record does not make for pretty reading – three defeats and an aggregate score of 6-0.
Firstly, they travelled to Stoke, who were bottom at the time, but the Potters took this 20th v 19th battle through two unanswered Joe Allen goals.
It was, arguably, the Wearsiders’ worst display of the season, going down with barely a whimper. Next up was a 15th v 20th duel at West Ham, who had a woeful home record going into the game in October, but while the fight was there, the Cats produced precious little in attack and succumbed to a last-kick-of-the-game Winston Reid winner.
The final game of the trilogy was a 20th v 18th visit to basement side Swansea earlier this month, when Sunderland had their chances before collapsing 3-0.
Three bad days at the office? Three matches where they lost to a better team? Or games the players just thought they might win and had their backsides kicked?
Possibly all three were factors, but the Black Cats must not have any delusions about this 14th v 18th contest tomorrow. This will be extremely hard – after starting the season with a home defeat to Swansea, Sean Dyche’s side have only lost at home to Arsenal and Manchester City and have managed six wins.
If there is one thing Burnley possess in bucket loads, it is industry.
Sunderland can’t afford to dip below the Clarets’ work-rate or they could come in for a tough afternoon.
Just examine these three fine home wins Dyche’s side have achieved.
They beat Liverpool 2-0 on 20% possession, Everton 2-1 on 35% and Bournemouth 3-2 on 30%. Pitiful. But, of course, the only figures which ultimately counts is the final score. “We have never been bogged down by possession stats” said Dyche.
But the newly-promoted Lancashire club are proof that work-rate and organisation can beat quality, not to mention an outstanding goalkeeper, in Tom Heaton, who has performed Jordan Pickford-like heroics all season.
As highlighted just a few sentences ago, Burnley don’t need lots of the ball to win.
There is no tip-tappy, pass it five yards, pass it back carry on from Dyche’s players.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not quite Wimbledon in the 1980s/ John Beck/ Jack Charlton “bang it to the big led” stuff.
But there is a no-nonsense approach from the Clarets, who are happy to play it long to striker Sam Vokes, whose aerial ability has caused many an opposition defence problems.
Not only is he the team’s leading scorer, with four, he also has a couple of assists to his name.
Indeed, he had another against Middlesbrough on Boxing Day, when he flicked on Heaton’s punt for Andre Gray, whose first-time shot should have been saved by Victor Valdes. Instead, the keeper threw it into his own net to gift the hosts victory.
Sunderland’s defenders, especially messrs Kone and Djilibodji must be braced for an aerial challenge or 10. You have been warned fellas.
It will be intriguing to see if John O’Shea gets a start in Lancashire. This writer tipped him to play at Manchester United on Boxing Day, but David Moyes stuck with his four at the back policy.
The head of O’Shea could be a useful addition to the Black Cats line-up – it helped in the match against Chelsea and, on a day when defeat is not really an option, it could do the same at Turf Moor.