Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Tonights rivals are treading similar paths

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A COMMON thread has intertwined the destinies of Sunderland and Norwich over the last three decades.

Steve Bruce caught himself last week when he realised it was 26 years since he lined up for the Canaries against Sunderland in the Milk Cup final.

That day sparked something.

The two clubs were relegated together that season, met again in the 1992 FA Cup semi-final and possess that infamous status of two well-supported clubs who have spent too long outside the top flight – tonight is, criminally, their first ever Premier League encounter.

The symmetry continued as both earned invaluable victories in their last outings.

Each benefitted from goals from set-pieces and crucially earned a splash of fortune – Sunderland through deflections and Norwich from the theatrical abilities of defender Marc Tierney, who persuaded Howard Webb to hand Bolton frontman Ivan Klasnic his marching orders for a “headbrush”.

The importance of each club breathing a sigh of relief from earning a maiden three points cannot be underestimated.

If the win search had continued much longer, scrutiny on Bruce from the terraces would have intensified, while Norwich would have been painted as immediate strugglers in the newly-promoted pack.

Now the pair enter tonight’s clash in buoyant mood with the nervous tension around Carrow Road eased by the first significant step on the road to survival.

It makes for an intriguing battle, with two similarly styled outfits reliant on moving the ball swiftly to the flanks, looking to register the windfall of a back-to-back victory.

For Bruce, the recipe will almost certainly be same again.

There was a far better balance to the Sunderland side against Stoke and the onus will again be on David Vaughan to spark the tempo for the visitors.

But the key for the Black Cats will be their front pair.

Nicklas Bendtner and Stephane Sessegnon are yet to get off the mark for Sunderland this season, but they crucially provided a platform against the Potters.

Bendtner provided a stark contrast to the labouring Peter Crouch with his back to goal and linked up effectively both with Sessegnon and the midfielders who were suddenly keen to bomb forward after the uplifting sight of an early goal.

Considering Sunderland are up against a Norwich defence stripped of significant Premier League experience, Sunderland must show some ruthlessness in exploiting the inevitable gaps that present themselves.

The curious aspect of tonight’s battle though will be whether Norwich boss Paul Lambert shuffles his pack.

Lambert made six changes for the trip to Bolton, including the relegation to the bench of skipper Grant Holt and lively ex-Everton frontman James Vaughan.

The ploy of using Wes Hoolahan in the hole behind Steve Morison, while looking to make the most of the pace of Elliott Bennett and persistence of Anthony Pilkington on the flanks, paid dividends.

But can the Canaries feasibly operate without the Holt battering ram at Carrow Road?

The former Carlisle man has been the linchpin for Norwich’s success during back-to-back promotions and Lambert may opt to recall the striker in a more adventurous line-up than the one at Bolton.

Norwich will rightly believe they can triumph against a Sunderland side still in the experimental stage despite the euphoria of beating Stoke.

But likewise, Sunderland should realise that facing a newly-promoted side away from home is still preferable to a trip to Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge, particularly if a run of results is needed to completely subdue the grumbles.

Given Sunderland would have comfortably triumphed at Norwich’s fellow new boys Swansea given a switched-on striker, there shouldn’t any trepidation in the Black Cats dressing room.

Like the last 26 years though, it may be another case of the two clubs’ fortunes going hand-in-hand.

Verdict: Draw