Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Sunderland craving cottage victory

LEAP ON THE TURN: Michael Turner and Fulham's Moussa Dembele battle for the ball during November's draw at the Stadium of Light.
LEAP ON THE TURN: Michael Turner and Fulham's Moussa Dembele battle for the ball during November's draw at the Stadium of Light.
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BLUE success in the Manchester derby on Monday night has suddenly restored some interest in the climax of Sunderland’s season.

From a Sunderland point of view, little rides on their final day showdown with Manchester United.

Yet the eyes of the country will be on the Stadium of Light next week and the intrigue of potentially deciding the title race is a big draw as Sunderland bid farewell to the 2011-12 campaign.

Sunderland’s final away game of the season sets far fewer pulses racing.

Sunday’s trip to Craven Cottage is the archetypal end-of-season mid-table encounter between two sides who have struggled for consistency over the home straight.

The Black Cats head to Fulham on the back of a six-game winless run, whereas the Cottagers have meandered between the sublime and the horrifying over the last two months.

Three successive defeats, followed by three wins in four and then two starkly contrasting results on Merseyside – that’s the recipe which has seen Martin Jol’s men edge to a four-point lead over Martin O’Neill’s side.

But in terms of Sunderland’s hopes of securing a second successive top half finish, it is imperative the Wearsiders prevail in this weekend’s clash.

Sunderland have become masters of blowing opportunities over the last three games after failing to beat strugglers Wolves, Aston Villa and Bolton.

A measly tally of just three points from that trio of matches has seen Sunderland slump to 11th and there can be no more near misses on Sunday if the talk about top 10 consolidation is to be converted into a tangible achievement.

Sunderland may well secure victory on the final day against Man United to scupper Sir Alex Ferguson’s dream of a 13th Premier League crown.

But given the lethargy which has characterised Sunderland over recent weeks, it is a tall order.

Realistically, Sunderland need to close the gap on Fulham with a victory on Sunday and overhaul their points total from last season in the process.

That will be no mean feat, considering Jol’s side have lost just four times on their own turf this season – the same number as Sunderland.

Certainly, the Black Cats cannot afford to gift the cheap goals they surrendered against Bolton, as they face an attack that is potent at Craven Cottage.

Fulham boast the sixth-best home attack in the Premier League and the likes of Clint Dempsey, Moussa Dembele and Pavel Pogrebnyak – a target for Sunderland last summer – will threaten a visiting back-line that may well have a different complexion.

O’Neill was clearly riled by the space allocated to Kevin Davies for his double last weekend, with Matt Kilgallon paying the price after being hauled off in the final 10 minutes.

It inevitably puts Kilgallon’s place under scrutiny this weekend, particularly with John O’Shea now fighting fit and Craig Gardner free from suspension.

O’Neill could feasibly perform a reshuffle, with O’Shea partnering Michael Turner at centre-half, Phil Bardsley reverting to right-back and Jack Colback moving to left-back with Gardner returning to the starting XI.

Perhaps that would be a dramatic measure, considering Kilgallon has performed admirably since returning to the first-team picture.

But Sunderland need to be a more solid defensive unit if they are to secure the plaudits and prize money on offer for harbouring a position further up the Premier League pecking order.

O’Neill is unlikely to make sweeping changes elsewhere, although he faces a decision over whether to hand Craig Gordon another opportunity in goal or recall Simon Mignolet.

These final games are far from meaningless for Gordon and will not be for O’Neill either as he makes the final assessments on who merits a place in his plans for next season.

Verdict: Draw