MARTIN O’Neill is upbeat about Sunderland’s chances of giving Carling Cup winners Liverpool a game this weekend – despite losing leading scorer Stephane Sessegnon and inspirational captain Lee Cattermole to suspension.
The Reds travel to the Stadium of Light tomorrow still on a high after collecting their first silveware in six years and with Champions League qualification still in their sights.
But O’Neill, pictured right, is urging his players to think big and take inspiration from their derby day heroics at the Sports Direct Arena last Sunday.
“Liverpool are a big club, but we are a big club too,” he said.
“If you need any proof of that, just look at our supporters on Sunday. They made themselves heard even from miles away.
“That’s what we’ve got to get into – the mindset that we are a big club and that we can challenge.
“I’m not saying we’ve reached that standard yet – we haven’t.
“But we are playing with passion and being supported with passion and we shouldn’t underestimate how far that can take you.”
Sunderland lost Cattermole (four games) and Sessegnon (three games) to bans from the match against their local rivals and O’Neill says Liverpool will take encouragement from that but know better than to take their opponents lightly this weekend as they try to make inroads on the top four.
“Liverpool have dropped a few points this season, but I still believe they are in contention for a Champions League place, although the last-minute defeat against Arsenal last week will have hurt them greatly,” said the Black Cats’ boss.
“They will be coming here feeling they can win the match and will be buoyed by the fact that we have two influential players missing, in Sessegnon and Cattermole.
“That makes it more difficult for us.
“But we have been playing well at home recently and we have to believe we can keep it going this weekend and take points off Liverpool.
“They will know they are in for a battle either way.”
Liverpool ended their trophy drought when they lifted the League Cup last month, qualifying for next season’s Europa League in the process.
But they have so far failed to be the force in the league many expected after spending £110million on new players – including the likes of Andy Carroll from Newcastle, Sunderland’s Jordan Henderson, Luis Suarez from Ajax and Stewart Downing from Aston Villa – over the last 14 months.
Their form at Anfield has been their Achilles heel, winning just four of their 13 home games, with Sunderland one of eight teams to go to Merseyside and come away with a point.
Steve Bruce’s Black Cats drew 1-1 with Kenny Dalglish’s side on the opening day of the season as Seb Larsson’s spectacular strike cancelled out Suarez’s opener.
O’Neill said: “I know in the league Liverpool probably feel they have missed out on a few opportunities to win games at Anfield. That has been a problem for them.
“Sunderland got a remarkable draw there on the opening day of the season and it was a fantastic effort and maybe, at the end of the season, Liverpool will think that game set the tone.”