Big Match Verdict: All eyes on Danny Graham at Sunderland vs Swansea

Swansea's Danny Graham
Swansea's Danny Graham
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THE BOFFINS in charge of the fixture computer obviously have a nose for a story.

Two days before the transfer window slams shut, tonight’s Stadium of Light clash provides the perfect setting for the Sky cameras to capture the expressions of Danny Graham, as the chase for Sunderland’s number one target drags on and on.

Martin O’Neill and opposite number Michael Laudrup continue to keep their own counsel over Graham’s future, with neither willing to offer a sound-bite over a potential resolution to the chase.

But even though Graham is likely to start on the bench tonight, the Chester-le-Street-born frontman is the only story in town.

The nuances of the transfer window make that an inevitability, yet in the grand scheme, there is far more at stake tonight than whether Graham can be caught looking covetously towards the home dressing room.

Victory tonight would take Sunderland through the 30-point barrier and that would be no mean achievement considering the predicament Martin O’Neill’s men found themselves in just over a month ago.

When the Black Cats headed to Southampton on December 22 with just 16 points to their name, such sanctity was merely a pipe-dream.

But four subsequent wins out of six have handed Sunderland some breathing space and the noose of pressure that accompanies sides at the wrong end of the table has slackened significantly.

Should O’Neill’s side secure a third successive Premier League win tonight, then the fear of relegation would be all but banished.

That is a significant incentive and for a side flush with confidence after victory at Wigan and then enjoying the luxury of a few days to rest weary limbs, Sunderland should be relishing the visit of the Capital One Cup finalists.

Selection-wise, O’Neill is highly unlikely to shuffle his pack, with the continuing absence of Danny Rose, Lee Cattermole and Carlos Cuellar largely forcing the Sunderland manager’s hand.

There will have to be a change on the bench, with new boy Kader Mangane likely to take the place of James McFadden after the Scot’s short-term deal expired.

There is possibly also a case for James McClean to return to the starting line-up for a home game.

But the system which O’Neill deployed at Wigan is one ready-made to face the Swans.

At the DW Stadium, O’Neill used Stephane Sessegnon and Adam Johnson almost as inside-forwards, with a central midfield trio of Seb Larsson, Alfred N’Diaye and David Vaughan looking to get up the pitch to support Steven Fletcher.

Given Swansea’s penchant for keeping possession and the threat posed by the runs from deep of Michu, Jonathan De Guzman and Pablo Hernandez, Sunderland need to ensure they are not outnumbered in the middle of the park.

Like the Black Cats, Swansea are a side looking upwards and bursting with confidence after losing just once away from home in the Premier League since October and only four times all season.

Perhaps the distraction of reaching Wembley will prompt a deterioration in Swansea’s league form, yet they have had a week to digest their cup success and re-focus on the league programme.

This is by far the most testing fixture in a group of games against teams in or around Sunderland in the league table and one that shouldn’t be underestimated.

Chelsea, Newcastle and Arsenal have all been swept aside by Laudrup’s side this season and a point tonight would be far from a catastrophe for the Black Cats.

Only then, in the 48 hours that follows, can attention turn back to snaring the striker occupying a spot on the Swansea bench, who provides the final piece in O’Neill’s January wishlist.

Verdict: Draw