Big-match analysis: Sunderland capable of watershed victory at Stoke

Sunderland boss Gus Poyet takes his side to Stoke tomorrow
Sunderland boss Gus Poyet takes his side to Stoke tomorrow
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SUNDERLAND’S players would happily testify that there is substance to the adage about fortune deserting those sides at the wrong end of the table.

* Martin Atkinson’s scandalous decision to ignore the advantage and deny Jozy Altidore a maiden Premier League goal against Arsenal.

* Two own goals on Gus Poyet’s first game in charge at Swansea.

* And a strike from Manchester United teenager Adnan Januzaj which would have reached row Z nine times out of 10, yet nestled perfectly in the bottom corner.

But fate has smiled kindly on tomorrow’s opponents, fourth-bottom Stoke City, with two huge bonus goals in their last two games.

Goalkeeper Asmir Begovic’s hoof inexplicably deceived Southampton’s defence in the Potters’ last Britannia Stadium outing.

Then 12 days ago, referee Robert Madley awarded Mark Hughes’s side a laughable stoppage time spot-kick to grab a last-minute equaliser at Swansea.

Without those two draws, Sunderland would have headed into tomorrow’s encounter with the prospect of leapfrogging Stoke and potentially moving out of the relegation zone for the first time since August.

Now, it would take an inconceivable leap in the goal difference column for Sunderland to earn that morale booster.

Nevertheless, this weekend’s clash is a big one.

Trips to the Britannia never seem to be memorable, but tomorrow’s encounter is hugely significant for both clubs.

Stoke have not tasted a Premier League victory since August and the murmurings of discontent are beginning over Hughes.

In fairness to the former Manchester City boss, it was always going to be an uphill task to evolve Tony Pulis’s prehistoric style and the campaign will inevitably be a hybrid of long ball mixed with attempts to start getting it down.

But Stoke are vulnerable while they adapt to Hughes’s philosophy.

The question is whether Sunderland’s new strategy proves to be any more effective.

Sunderland have relished Gus Poyet’s possession-based blueprint over the last two games, but this season they have been a soft touch away from home.

It was a dogged point at Southampton in Sunderland’s first game on their travels, but since then, they have succumbed to sides who have been in the midst of stuttering spells – Crystal Palace, West Brom, Swansea and Hull.

That pattern cannot afford to continue at the Britannia.

While the home form has so far been hugely encouraging under Poyet’s tenure, Sunderland cannot keep going back to square one by losing so meekly on the road.

Having Wes Brown back in the frame undoubtedly helps proceedings.

A cohesive central defensive partnership is essential under Stoke’s aerial barrage and Brown and O’Shea have immediately demonstrated that they have the communication to work effectively together.

Behind them, tomorrow will also be a big test of Vito Mannone’s credentials, presuming the Italian keeps his place ahead of Keiren Westwood.

Poyet will surely be loathe to make any changes to the side which performed so well against Manchester City.

The only doubt is whether Ki Sung-Yeung is suffering any jet-lag after international duty, yet at least his journey home was shorter than usual, with South Korea playing Tuesday’s friendly against Russia in Dubai.

Ki is a vital component of Poyet’s set-up and the emphasis will be on the on-loan Swansea midfielder to provide a rare element of composure in a game which could inevitably turn scrappy.

If Poyet’s philosophy can come up trumps in this one though, it could be a watershed moment.

It would demonstrate to Sunderland’s players that they can succeed home and away by keeping the ball on the deck.

And a win would also signify that Sunderland were very much back in the survival scrap.

Verdict: Away win

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