Big-match preview: Time to party for Sunderland

Phil Bardsley
Phil Bardsley
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PARTY POPPERS have replaced the sick bags, valium and tissues as the essential equipment for Sunday’s final-day visit of Swansea.

While only the ludicrously optimistic foresaw Sunderland beating the drop four weeks ago, it was utterly inconceivable to suggest that their survival battle would not go down to the wire.

But there will be no last-day nerves now.

Anxiety has been replaced by ecstasy.

Another Stadium of Light crowd well in excess of 40,000 can revel in Premier League football on Wearside being prolonged after the stunning turnaround conducted by Gus Poyet and his players.

Bizarrely, in a season where Sunderland have reached the depths of despair, this campaign will now be fondly regarded as one of the most memorable in the club’s history.

A first Wembley final in 22 years, a derby double over Newcastle United and a remarkable Great Escape after Sunderland already had one foot in the Championship.

It’s been an unbelievable ride and finally supporters, players and staff can catch their breath.

The huge amount of hard work which needs to be conducted during the summer with incomings and outgoings can wait. For now – for the first time this season – there can be a sense of pure enjoyment surrounding a game.

Nevertheless, there are prizes at stake – principally financial ones.

It’s staggering to think Sunderland can now finish as high as 12th in the table – a finish which would be their fourth best in the Premier League era – considering they have spent all but five weeks of this season in the bottom three.

But the higher Sunderland can climb up the pecking order, the better in terms of prize money on offer.

That could provide a significant boost to Poyet in terms of his transfer budget for the summer, while it doesn’t do any harm in maximising his reputation for the scale of Sunderland’s transformation.

Ellis Short will doubtless welcome a few extra millions as Sunderland look to comply with Financial Fair Play, albeit the bulk of the Black Cats owner’s investment has been protected by avoiding the drop.

But finances will be of secondary importance to Poyet on Sunday.

His principal concern will be securing a fifth successive Premier League victory for the first time since 1999, and signing off the campaign with the feelgood factor ramped up a further notch.

Poyet is also keen to offer a reward to those who have been on the fringes in recent weeks.

There will undoubtedly be changes – knocks for Seb Larsson and Lee Cattermole are likely to force at least two for starters.

Emanuele Giaccherini, Oscar Ustari, Jozy Altidore, Liam Bridcutt and Phil Bardsley – potentially making his farewell appearance for Sunderland – will all come into the reckoning.

But whether Sunderland can continue with their winning streak will largely depend on attitude, rather than personnel.

How will Poyet’s side react after getting over the finishing line?

As West Brom showed on Wednesday, it is difficult to maintain intensity levels once survival is assured.

It’s almost inevitable that there is a lull.

All Poyet can do is encourage his players to enjoy themselves and see what happens.

It’s a similar situation for Swansea boss Garry Monk, confirmed as the Welsh club’s permanent manager earlier this week.

Swansea’s spot in the Premier League was assured a fortnight ago when they romped to a 4-1 victory against Aston Villa and they, like Sunderland, are facing a dead rubber.

What a contrast that is, though, to Poyet’s first game in charge of Sunderland this season.

At the Liberty Stadium in October, Poyet received a brutal education in the frailties amidst Sunderland’s ranks after the Black Cats utterly collapsed in the second half of a 4-0 rout.

There looked precious little hope of steering the juggernaut around at that stage, even if time was on Poyet’s side.

But whether it has been through a miracle, fortune or just plain old graft, Sunderland have got there.

Now they can celebrate.

Verdict: Home win

Twitter @youngsunecho

* Don’t miss tomorrow’s online Football Echo – the last edition of the season. It’s available from around 6.45pm.