Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Sunderland’s fringe players may get a chance

David Meyler

David Meyler

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THE NEWS agenda on Tuesday night was understandably dominated by guffawing at Chelsea’s Champions League success over shot and cross-shy Barcelona.

While the result at Villa Park hardly captivated global attention in the same manner, it was nevertheless hugely significant in a relegation battle which refuses to be concluded before the final day.

The vitriol directed towards Alex McLeish, much in the same way as Steve Bruce was harangued against Wigan last November, somewhat stole the focus away from Bolton’s comeback victory after plummeting Aston Villa were dragged to within three points of the drop zone.

But it shouldn’t lessen the significance of Bolton’s success, nor their charge towards Premier League safety.

Sunderland face a team in the midst of their best run of the season tomorrow. Like fellow strugglers Wigan, Bolton have found their form when it matters – taking 13 points from their last seven games.

This is far from the tired, dishevelled and sluggish team that an equally low on confidence Sunderland side vanquished at the Reebok Stadium last October.

It perhaps took the tragic circumstances surrounding Fabrice Muamba to finally inject some life into Bolton.

But they have made the most of the upturn in results following Muamba’s heart attack and with a game in hand on their rivals, Owen Coyle’s side will fancy their chances of edging out of a relegation zone they have been magnetised towards all season.

The note of caution for Bolton is that consistency has alluded them throughout this campaign. Back-to-back victories have been achieved just once, both at the Reebok against QPR and Blackburn last month.

Coyle’s cause is not helped by a third game in a week, with a squad desperately short on numbers, particularly in midfield.

Six of the starting line-up from Tuesday are doubts for tomorrow, including midfielders Chris Eagles, Mark Davies and Ryo Miyaichi, while former Swansea man Darren Pratley, who didn’t feature at Villa Park, is struggling with illness.

It may force Coyle to hand 18-year-old Josh Vela a Premier League baptism, while at the other end of the scale, 35-year-old Kevin Davies should start after his half-time introduction at Villa proved pivotal.

But while Bolton’s confidence is high, ultimately the outcome tomorrow will depend on Sunderland’s hunger to end a five-game winless run.

Sunderland merited three points last weekend, yet they will struggle to overcome Bolton if they are as flat as their last Stadium of Light outing against wooden spoon winners Wolves.

At least there will be players in the starting line-up desperate to profit from a rare chance, with Craig Gardner’s suspension, coupled with Seb Larsson’s season-ending hernia operation, forcing Martin O’Neill to alter the make-up of his midfield.

Fraizer Campbell looks the most likely candidate to take Larsson’s role on the right, while David Meyler’s patience could well be rewarded in the middle of the park if Lee Cattermole’s attempts to return fall short.

The possibility of Craig Gordon’s inclusion shouldn’t be overlooked either. Surely if O’Neill does want to see the Scot in action, there are few better opportunities in the final three games than tomorrow.

It is at the other end where Sunderland need to make their mark though after more than six goalless hours. Let’s face it, they shouldn’t be overawed at facing a Bolton backline who are hardly on a par with the rugged defensive unit supremely drilled under Sam Allardyce.

If Sunderland’s talk of finishing in the top 10 is to be translated into action, then scoring boots need to be unearthed for victory.

Three points would equal Sunderland’s tally from last season and leave them heading into the final two games knowing that one more win would almost certainly suffice for a top half finish.

Failure to secure victory tomorrow and Sunderland’s damp squib of a finale would leave O’Neill’s side struggling to fulfil this year’s primary objective.

Verdict: Home win