Chris Young: Sunderland better be ready for a hostile do-or-die game at Norwich
The sound of the football supporter-friendly '˜clacker' will inevitably greet Sunderland when they run out the tunnel at Carrow Road on Saturday lunchtime.
Those irritating noise-making pieces of cardboard will be frenetically waving through the air again after Norwich purchased 20,000 of them for the equally pivotal encounter against Newcastle United a fortnight ago.
The perversity of Norwich’s clacker fetish is that compact Carrow Road is a boisterous enough place without them. It’s one of those grounds where the volume levels shouldn’t be underestimated.
A hostile, intense atmosphere awaits Sunderland in Norfolk, where a crowd on the very borders of the touchline will be baying for the result which would seal Norwich’s survival and condemn the Black Cats to the Championship.
That’s not bigging the game up unnecessarily. The stakes are that high.
Two years ago, Sunderland wilted in those partisan surroundings; tamely succumbing to a 2-0 defeat which sparked some post-match fireworks in the away dressing room and looked to have put the final nail into Gus Poyet’s hopes of sparking a remarkable Houdini act.
Sunderland were ultimately spared that season by the emergency parachute of a further 10 games, but there is no leeway this time around. It’s win or bust time for Sam Allardyce’s men now.
If the Black Cats come away with anything less maximum points on Saturday, then it’s straw clutching time for their hopes of a fourth successive escape from the jaws of relegation.
A defeat would be curtains, but even a draw would leave Sunderland needing to make up a four-point gap with only five remaining chances to do it.
Sunderland still have a game in hand, but when only one win has arrived in the last 11 games, points on the board are a rich currency for the fourth bottom Canaries.
Perhaps the only solace from the weekend is that the gap remains at four points after Norwich endured one of those Sunderland-esque ‘what might have been’ afternoons at Crystal Palace on Saturday.
On the evidence of that 1-0 defeat at Selhurst Park, Norwich will cause Sunderland problems through the power and pace of centre-forward Dieumerci Mbokani, yet they remain distinctly vulnerable defensively with protective midfielder Alex Tettey sidelined and centre-half Timm Klose stretchered off with a knee injury.
Whether Sunderland can take advantage of any fragility at the back is another question altogether.
Over the last two games, Sunderland’s greatest shortcoming has transferred from being a lack of clean sheets, to an inability to profit from run-of-the-mill opportunities.
A stack of them were spurned against West Brom and while there were never going to be the same quantity against Leicester City yesterday, Allardyce’s side are proving to be their own worst enemy in front of goal.
Yes, it was a defensive lapse of concentration which allowed Jamie Vardy to collect a route one punt over the top, race in behind the Sunderland back-line and then calmly tuck the ball beyond Vito Mannone into the far corner.
But prior to that defining moment in an industrious, physical encounter where there had barely been a cigarette paper between the two teams, Sunderland enjoyed the better of the chances, with Vardy subdued by Younes Kaboul and Riyad Mahrez largely anonymous.
Fabio Borini’s pair of near-misses prompted ‘ooh’s and aah’s’ from the Stadium of Light’s second biggest crowd of the season, yet against a team as stingy as Leicester, those are the kind of opportunities which need to be taken.
Just how would the league leaders have reacted if they had fallen behind for the first time since March 1?
And although Sunderland became ragged, incohesive and lacked any hint of composure after Vardy’s opener, the hosts still produced misses which were unforgiveable in their failure to hit the target at the very least.
Jack Rodwell’s howler (after he had been similarly wasteful in February’s 1-0 defeat at West Ham) was appalling, while Borini’s shot which glanced off his foot and hit him flush in the face was painfully comic.
With Jermain Defoe unable to make any impact up against Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, the lack of goals has to be a real concern for Allardyce this week.
What can Allardyce really do though personnel-wise to improve Sunderland’s chances of finding the net?
Fielding three defensive-minded midfielders has prompted criticism of the Sunderland boss, but, on paper, Seb Larsson looks the best of the alternatives available and the Swede hasn’t started a game since November.
Rodwell continues to be a let-down just as he threatens to turn a corner, while although Jeremain Lens produced a positive impression from the bench yesterday, there have to be question marks hanging over the Dutch international’s work-rate and temperament for a game of this magnitude.
The Norwich game is as big as a cup final, it’s as big as the derby, and will have the atmosphere to match.
Someone will have to be a hero for Sunderland in those surroundings. No-one can kid themselves about the repercussions if there isn’t one.