JOHN O’Shea predicts a tough day at the office for Sunderland’s defenders on Monday night – particularly in the shape of man-mountain Aston Villa forward Christian Benteke.
But the stand-in Black Cats’ skipper says he and his team-mates go into the game knowing full well the reward that will be theirs if they can give a good account of themselves at Villa Park.
And with the Black Cats three points ahead of Monday’s opponents and boasting a superior goal difference, he believes it will be the home side who will feel under most pressure on the night, especially with Sunderland on a high after successive wins over Newcastle and Everton.
“It’s amazing,” he smiled. “Back-to-back wins have really put everything in to place in terms of what we have been working on on the training pitch.
“The manager has already spoken about the way things went for us against Chelsea in his first game in charge – it went so well for just 45 minutes – but we have been able to build on that, and fingers crossed, we are able to build again against Aston Villa.
“They are a team who really can hurt you with the pace and power they have, but also they can leave themselves open as well.
“So we have to find a balance of making sure we can cope with counter-attacks, but also know we can hurt them with our counter-attacks too.
“Benteke has been a major factor for them this season – without his goals, they definitely would have been in a lot more trouble.
“But they have got players alongside him too.
“He takes a lot of the focus, but there’s Gabby Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann and there’s Charles N’Zogbia as well.
“These are dangerous players and the counter-attack they have is one of the most potent in the Premier League, never mind anywhere else, so it’s one we have to keep an eye on.”
The Republic of Ireland centre-half though is quietly confident that Sunderland can make it three great performances in a row next week.
“We have to continue the run because it’s all well and good to get back-to-back victories, but we know if we can beat Villa as well on Monday night, it’s going to be a massive victory,” he said.
“It’s very important for us – especially at this time in the season.
“Arguably there’s more pressure on them than us because they are the home team and are below us in the table.
“But we know they will have a big, big support behind them. It’s a massive game and one you want to come around quite quickly.
“People would have been looking at our games, in particular against Newcastle and Everton and before the Chelsea performance as well, thinking, ‘Well, Sunderland have no chance in those matches and they are going to be in a massive dogfight’.
“There’s no doubt we are still in a very tricky position, but it’s much, much, much better than it was a couple of weeks ago.
“The confidence is good, but we also know that there is still a job to be done and we can end the season on a positive note if we can continue the application and focus that’s needed.
“If we can get something down there, hopefully that should see us across, but we have got two home games then against Stoke and Southampton and a tough away game, so the sooner the better, as they say.”
O’Shea concedes that from an outsiders’ perspective it is odd that Sunderland were drifting under Martin O’Neill yet now seem full of purpose with Di Canio at the helm.
But he reflected: “It’s football through the ages – the reaction of a new manager coming in.
“But also, just if things weren’t happening for an old manager – it just happens sometimes like that.
“If we had lost against Newcastle and Everton, then obviously, these questions would be very different. It just the way things happens in football.”