THE SORCERER and the apprentice is a familiar yarn for Martin O’Neill.
Throughout his managerial career, the Sunderland boss has been cast as the pupil defined by his tutelage under Brian Clough.
Tonight the roles are reversed – O’Neill the mentor to opposite number Paul Lambert, skipper of the side nurtured and polished in the Ulsterman’s reign at Celtic.
Lambert owes O’Neill much, not least for a kind word to the hierarchy at his former club Wycombe, in backing the ex-Scotland international for his first break on the managerial ladder south of the border.
But the sanctity of the old boys’ network counts for little if the victories needed to stave off the ever-present threat of the hangman’s noose are not mustered.
In his education at both Wycombe and Colchester, Lambert forged his own path as one of the brightest young bosses in the game.
At Carrow Road, though, Lambert’s achievements exceed O’Neill’s miracle-working on Wearside and he justifiably takes his place as an equal to his former boss in the Stadium of Light dug-outs tomorrow.
Lambert proves the power of momentum in masterminding back-to-back promotions, but perhaps more importantly, the value of recruiting players with a determination to prove themselves.
Thrusting League One and Championship players into the Premier League is a precarious business – Mick McCarthy can testify to that under the shadow of the 2005-06 campaign.
Lambert has not had the budget to emulate the spending power of fellow top flight new boys QPR, but has managed to forge a well-drilled, fluent and hungry side that surely now will not be restricted to a solitary season in the top flight.
The 11-point margin with the bottom three is easily sufficient leeway by this stage of the campaign and regardless of the points advantage, there are far worse sides in the Premier League than the Canaries.
Sunderland were hapless at Carrow Road in September, producing arguably their worst performance of the campaign, yet Norwich preyed upon the Black Cats’ inadequacies with a formula that has brought success all season – a pair of good wingers and an awkward centre-forward or two.
Norwich will not alter their approach tonight.
Steve Morison, right, and Grant Holt will act as the battering rams, while Anthony Pilkington, Elliott Bennett and Wes Hoolahan provide the ammunition from out wide.
For a Sunderland defence, who remain the fourth best in the Premier League, they need to be significantly improved from the shaky quartet that struggled under Lukas Jutkiewicz’s physical pressure on Sunday.
Holt and Morison are more polished performers than Jutiewicz, although they may prove to be ideal opponents for Michael Turner, with the ex-Hull City man likely to make his first start under O’Neill tonight, with Sotirios Kyrgiakos unavialable.
Turner will not shirk a battle and is far more suited to facing a Morison or Holt than a speedster.
Alongside him, Wayne Bridge’s capture at least gives O’Neill options, rather than picking his defence almost by default, although he must balance the former England man’s lack of match-fitness, with the end to what has been an exhausting three-year long search for a specialist left-back.
The injection of experience provided by Bridge may sway O’Neill, especially as it frees Kieran Richardson and Jack Colback to battle it out for David Vaughan’s vacant spot in central midfield.
The bigger dilemma for O’Neill lies at the far end of the field in who leads the line in the continued absence of Nicklas Bendtner.
Connor Wickham was the obvious choice to replace Bendtner against Middlesbrough, but struggled to exert himself in the opening 45 minutes and add in a knock sustained in the Wear-Tees derby and the 18-year-old’s inclusion in the starting XI has to be in doubt.
But what else can O’Neill do?
Can Fraizer Campbell be really asked to lead the line from kick-off after a mere 45 minute cameo? And will O’Neill put his faith in Ji Dong-won, with the South Korean yet to start under the ex-Aston Villa boss?
One option could be to deploy Craig Gardner in the hole behind Stephane Sessegnon, as Sunderland did successfully at Peterborough, but that is an option which looks far more suited to the road.
O’Neill may simply have to persist with Wickham, who at least will have an extra injection of motivation after the former Ipswich striker was heavily barracked at Carrow Road in the Autumn.
Norwich are vulnerable at the back on the road, only Blackburn, Bolton and Wigan conceding more away from home and if Sunderland can provide a sufficient platform for Sessegnon, they have every chance of notching a fourth Premier League success in five.
Given O’Neill will be eager for better after the worst performance of his reign against Boro, Sunderland should be equipped to avenge the low of the season as a whole.
Verdict: Home win