Spurs v Sunderland: Chris Young’s verdict

Martin O'Neill
Martin O'Neill
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FROM a must-win to a bonus-win, Martin O’Neill visits the other end of the Premier League managerial spectrum this weekend.

At the Stadium of Light last Sunday, the scenario revolved around Sunderland harnessing the enthusiastic expectations of the home crowd and launching a tidal wave of pressure on Blackburn Rovers – a ploy which eventually and spectacularly reaped dividends.

Roles will very much be reversed at White Hart Lane as Sunderland strive to provide a further buffer on Tottenham’s hopes of gate-crashing the exclusive top four club.

The likely plot is hardly closeted in secrecy as Spurs, smarting from the unjust officiating in defeat at the Britannia Stadium, launch their multi-pronged threat while Sunderland supporters gaze anxiously through parted fingers, hoping the defensive barricades stay intact.

Perhaps it will play out like that. Spurs undoubtedly have the quality to put Sunderland on the rack with the searing pace of Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale, the guile of Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart plus the physical power of Emmanuel Adebayor.

But gauging Sunderland’s chances in North London is largely an unknown quantity, given the brevity of O’Neill’s reign and his limited window to implement a new formula on the squad.

It will be an evolving process for O’Neill to truly put his stamp on this Sunderland squad, perhaps the entire remainder of the campaign.

But did O’Neill’s appointment prove pivotal to a crucial win against Blackburn, or was it simply the fortune which habitually accompanies a new manager?

Certainly, there was little difference performance-wise from the Wigan defeat a fortnight earlier.

But then the Black Cats had renewed belief to doggedly pursue Steve Kean’s side until the finale, when they could easily have slowed down and felt sorry for themselves.

Plus, it was O’Neill’s decision to hand James McClean his Premier League bow which injected both the team and crowd with renewed momentum.

And it shouldn’t be overlooked either that O’Neill enjoyed a nine-game unbeaten run at the start of his tenure at Aston Villa, as previously under-performing players increasingly bought into the philosophy that here was a manager destined for lofty heights.

A victorious start to the Ulsterman’s Sunderland tenure is arguably no fluke then.

The upshot is that the burden weighing so heavily upon the Sunderland squad’s shoulders has been significantly eased.

Pressure to get some breathing space from the drop zone remains, particularly with the calibre of opposition over the next four games.

But at least Sunderland’s stint in the bottom three lasted for less than 24 hours and they can head to White Hart Lane free from major expectations or necessity of victory.

Recording elusive back-to-back wins for the first time since January will take some doing though against a Spurs side who have shone this season.

Wherever you look across Harry Redknapp’s XI, there is potential danger.

Titus Bramble, who handled Yakubu so proficiently last weekend, faces a far more mobile threat in Adebayor, who has arguably provided the final piece in Tottenham’s jigsaw.

Likewise, David Vaughan and Jack Colback, if he is preferred to the back-from-suspension Lee Cattermole, must be similarly alert in tracking the runs of Modric and van der Vaart.

But it is the assets out wide which pose the most significant weapon to Sunderland’s defence.

Last season, Nedum Onuoha handled Bale superbly at White Hart Lane as one of the few right-backs in the country capable of matching the fleet-of-foot Welsh winger.

John O’Shea cannot boast such pace and will need sufficient aid from Seb Larsson to keep Bale under wraps.

The other alternative is to use Phil Bardsley and Kieran Richardson at full-back and given the latter’s handling of flyers Theo Walcott and Nani from left-back, it is an avenue worthy of consideration.

At the opposite end, Sunderland have shown sufficient nous this season to realise the danger of parking the bus at one of the big boys.

Sunderland showed sufficient attacking ambition at Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United and were unfortunate not to garner more for their efforts.

James McClean will be pushing for a first start as will Nicklas Bendtner after recovering from a groin strain.

The suspicion though is that McClean may remain as an impact substitute, certainly until later in the festive period, while Connor Wickham showed sufficient endeavour last weekend to keep his place as the focal point to the attack.

The challenge couldn’t be much greater though for O’Neill in only his second game in charge.

Victory against Blackburn was not particularly staggering, even if the manner of the three points wandered into the spectacular.

But if O’Neill can wave a magic wand to earn something in North London on Sunday, then it would genuinely justify the lofty predictions which have accompanied his appointment.

Verdict: Home win