Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Sunderland need full focus on league before Everton cup clash

A BIG MISS: Stephane Sessegnon.
A BIG MISS: Stephane Sessegnon.
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THREE months into the job and Martin O’Neill is yet to be graced with the opportunity to take a breather and consider any significant re-shaping of his squad.

Yes, there were two arrivals in the January transfer window, but Wayne Bridge and Sotirios Kyrgiakos were stop-gap measures to ensure Sunderland’s momentum wasn’t halted by injuries, as was so painfully the case last season.

This is still very much Steve Bruce’s side and it won’t be until the summer that O’Neill ponders potential changes.

Given the way the Black Cats have performed under the Ulsterman’s stewardship, there has to be a suspicion that the tinkering will be selective.

But while Bruce was responsible for recruiting those who have thrived under O’Neill, it was Kenny Dalglish who financed Sunderland’s summer spending.

Liverpool will face the house that Jordan Henderson built tomorrow – the £18million injection into the coffers from the academy product’s sale to Anfield providing the capital for Sunderland’s supermarket sweep.

It increasingly looks an astute piece of business from the Black Cats.

Henderson, who deserves a warm welcome on his return to Wearside tomorrow, still has great potential to emerge as an England midfielder and has clearly impressed Dalglish with his dedication and work-rate.

But he is far from the finished product yet and with the wholesale signings Sunderland needed to make, they arguably received the better end of the deal.

The Henderson-financed side needs to prove its value tomorrow before Sunderland slip further down the throng of clubs vying to secure a top half finish.

Despite the euphoria of reaching the FA Cup quarter-finals and the relief at ending the derby no-shows, the Black Cats have still taken just one point from their last three league outings.

Due to the concertinaed nature of the Premier League’s middle of the road pack, Sunderland’s top eight objective remains very much a realistic goal.

But the Wearsiders must ensure the momentum developed by O’Neill doesn’t expire amid the inevitable cup talk.

The loss of Lee Cattermole and Stephane Sessegnon certainly doesn’t help matters, nor will the absence of Kieran Richardson if he fails to shake off a calf problem.

While either Jack Colback or David Vaughan will adequately replace Cattermole tomorrow, the skipper is still a loss due to his rejuvenation under O’Neill.

But Sessegnon is an altogether different chasm to fill, with the previously ever-present Benin international providing the spark, strength and pace that has made him one of the Premier League’s least heralded dangermen.

O’Neill is likely to hand Fraizer Campbell the chance to fill Sessegnon’s shoes over the next three games, in a more orthodox two-man strike force alongside Nicklas Bendtner.

Neither can match Sessegnon’s trickery or knack of creating from his own volition and a burden of responsibility lies on Sunderland’s midfield to ensure the supply lines work effectively.

That particularly holds true against a Liverpool side, who can boast the second best defensive record in the top flight.

The reason behind Liverpool being cast adrift of the Champions League places lies at the other end of the field, with Dalglish’s side scoring fewer than any other top 10 side – a record not helped by the potential continued absence of Steven Gerrard tomorrow.

For all the ability and swagger of Luis Suarez, the Uruguayan has only managed six Premier League goals this season, yet is Liverpool’s top scorer.

Dalglish’s side have struggled to unleash the shackles of a methodical approach and provided Sunderland maintain their defensive resilience tomorrow, there is no barrier towards them containing Liverpool’s struggling attack.

It promises to be a desperately tight affair, with a solitary goal likely to separate the two sides.

Given the way the two are capable of performing defensively, though, neither may be able to strike a decisive blow.

Verdict: Draw