STEVE Bruce concedes its a case of “now or never” this Sunday if Sunderland are to hold on to hopes of overhauling Liverpool this season.
The Reds come to the Stadium of Light this weekend four points clear of their hosts, having leapfrogged the Wearsiders into the sixth spot Sunderland occupied for the opening month of 2011.
And Bruce recognises that if the Black Cats want to reclaim that spot, they can’t afford to lose to Liverpool, with defeat leaving them seven points behind their rivals with just eight games remaining.
“We haven’t given up hope of catching Liverpool, and if we can beat them on Sunday then we are in with a chance of overhauling them,” he said.
“We still want to finish the season strongly, and part of that includes hoping to get a win this weekend.
“But, all of a sudden, Kenny (Dalglish) has breathed life into Liverpool and they have gone on a hell of a run.
“They’ve won something like five out of seven and, with the way the league is, that has propelled them up to the edge of the European places.
“Now it’s up to us to halt that progress and look to regain a bit of ground.
“We’ve got injured players back, we’ve got home advantage, we’ve got a sell-out crowd and we’ve got our good home form, so we’ll genuinely have a crack at it.”
The Liverpool side that will arrive on Wearside will be very different to the one that struggled to a 2-2 draw against Sunderland at Anfield in September, when rookie referee Stuart Attwell’s performance stole the headlines – his poor decision-making denying Sunderland a potential win and ensuring he didn’t referee another Premier League game in 2010.
Quite apart from the arrival of a new £57m strikeforce of Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez in January, and the departure of Fernando Torres, the Reds are resurgent after getting over making their worst to a season for more than half a century.
“Make no mistake, Kenny going in there has galvanised them,” said Bruce. “He’s had a wonderful effect on them. Kenny’s Liverpool through and through and he’s got them up and running again – they are unrecognisable from the side that was struggling a while back.”
Whatever the outcome on Sunday, Bruce says he’s looking forward to the game.
“When Liverpool come to town, it is always a good occasion,” he said. “Their history and tradition ensures that it is.
“On top of that though, I think it will be a great atmosphere and I hope my players enjoy it.
“We will have to be at our best, but I think Liverpool will know that they are going to be in for a game too.
“If we play anywhere near our best, let’s hope we can get the same kind of result as we did against them last year when we beat them at our place.”