CHRIS YOUNG: Time for Sunderland to hurt strugglers like Aston Villa

Steven Fletcher scores at Cardiff
Steven Fletcher scores at Cardiff
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SUNDERLAND have managed to banish some unwanted statistics over the last week.

A first away win of the season arrived at Everton before Sunderland managed to get something for their efforts at Cardiff after falling behind – another first for the campaign.

But the biggest monkey on Sunderland’s back is their failure to beat any teams in the bottom half of the table.

It’s a pattern which needs to change.

Victories over Newcastle, Manchester City and Everton have all been hugely memorable, but what really provides traction in the relegation battle is the knack of inflicting defeats on fellow strugglers.

What a chance tomorrow’s game is to consign that trend to the dustbin and begin 2014 on a bright new footing.

Aston Villa have hit a wall over the last month. What looked to be a season of solid, if slightly turgid, progress has suddenly developed into the familiar relegation fears of last year.

Villa were unconvincing in last month’s stalemate with the Black Cats and a return of just one from the last five games has seen them drop to within four points of the drop zone and the scrutiny on Paul Lambert revisited.

With the magnifying glass on last season’s saviour Christian Benteke too, Villa supporters are growing restless.

To add to his headache, Lambert may be forced to gamble on both Benteke and skipper Ron Vlaar tomorrow; knowing that defeat really would ramp up the pressure.

Benteke only returned to training yesterday after spending the festive period in his native Belgium for treatment on a knee injury.

Vlaar, meanwhile, has been a telling absentee during the last five games, but with central defensive partner Cieran Clark suspended tomorrow, the Dutchman is likely to face a hastier-than-planned return to the side.

With fellow centre-half Jores Okore out for the season, Lambert doesn’t really have any choice.

Gus Poyet faces a dilemma over how he exploits those defensive frailties though.

It would be miraculous if Fabio Borini features after his hospital visit during the second half at Cardiff, while Adam Johnson has been similarly under the weather after falling ill on the morning of the game.

If those two are ruled out, only Emanuele Giaccherini really falls into the category of the inside forward Poyet has tended to favour in support of one central striker.

Steven Fletcher would surely have been recalled anyway after his goal at Cardiff, but Poyet may have little choice than to go back to using the Scot alongside Jozy Altidore in a more orthodox two-man strike force.

Both seem in favour of working together though and there will surely be chances against a hastily-assembled Villa back-line.

Elsewhere, Jack Colback and Ondrej Celustka are likely to be recalled to the side after being rested at Cardiff, but the game may still be too soon for John O’Shea to return.

Doubtless by this stage of the Christmas schedule, fatigue will be setting in, but if Sunderland can make one final push before back-to-back cup games - the first of which is likely to see wholesale changes - it would be hugely significant.

A win may not take Sunderland out of the bottom three, but it would take them off the basement and psychologically, that would represent real progress at the start of 2014.

Verdict: Home win