Big match verdict: Sunderland hunt more bonus points in safety push

Connor Wickham slams home his second goal at Manchester City
Connor Wickham slams home his second goal at Manchester City
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GUS POYET will be given an especially warm welcome on his return to Stamford Bridge tomorrow night.

The Uruguayan, who lifted the FA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup during his four years in Chelsea’s midfield, could have inadvertently played a major role in bringing more silverware to the club’s trophy cabinet.

After Sunderland’s unlikely draw at Manchester City on Wednesday tilted the title race firmly in favour of Liverpool and Chelsea – who meet at Anfield in nine days time – Poyet, returning to his former stomping ground for the first time as a manager, will doubtless be received with much gratitude.

But how much – if at all – does that point at the Etihad Stadium alter Sunderland’s wafer-thin chances of beating the drop?

Had Sunderland emerged victorious against Manuel Pellegrini’s side to move onto the shoulders of Cardiff and Fulham and narrow the gap with fourth-bottom Norwich to four points, then eyebrows really would have been raised.

That is the difference just one win can make in the Premier League survival battle.

But even though Vito Mannone’s agonising howler denied Sunderland the extra two points they deserved, those looking for fairytale endings still have a handful of straws to clutch at.

If – and it’s obviously a huge if considering their form this season, both at home and against their bottom-half peers – Sunderland record three back-to-back wins in their final three Stadium of Light outings against Cardiff, West Brom and Swansea, it would take Poyet’s side to 35 points.

Fulham would need to win two of their final four games to overhaul that, while Norwich would have to take four points from a daunting run-in of Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal.

A tally of 35 points could be enough to survive.

But the pressure cooker would be huge for those final three games if Sunderland come away empty-handed from trips to Chelsea and Manchester United.

What a tonic would be if they could follow on from their Etihad exploits by putting more unexpected points on the board.

Certainly, when the heat has been off Sunderland and they haven’t had teams sitting back, making things difficult for them, the Black Cats have generally performed far better this season.

If they play with the same purpose and control which they showed at Manchester City, Sunderland will hardly be cannon fodder tomorrow either.

But that unbelievable undefeated Premier League record which Jose Mourinho can boast is a formidable barrier for Sunderland to overcome.

Nevertheless, Poyet’s men should have gained a hefty dose of confidence from becoming only the second team this season to come away from the Etihad with something to show for their efforts.

With few options available, Poyet is unlikely to stray too far from the team which started in Manchester.

Santiago Vergini is expected to continue at right-back, with Phil Bardsley serving the second of his two-match ban and Ondrej Celustka missing the City game through injury. The January signing deserves another chance after his most assured display in the Premier League yet anyway.

With Ki Sung-Yueng out for a fortnight with tendinitis in his knee, the midfield trio is unlikely to change either, although Poyet could take the bold step of handing Emanuele Giaccherini a start after the Italian set up both of Connor Wickham’s goals on Wednesday.

Mourinho has far more of a testing thought process in weighing up his options, with Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final first leg against Atletico Madrid on the horizon, followed by next Sunday’s trip to Liverpool.

Of all three games, this is surely likely to be the one where Mourinho rests some of his big-hitters.

Nevertheless, that would be fraught with danger. Just look at how City fared without the pivotal influences of injured pair Yaya Toure and David Silva on Wednesday.

Like City, Chelsea will be again firm favourites and it would take another remarkable evening for Sunderland to add to their points tally.

But maybe, just maybe, lightning can strike twice to keep this relegation fight alive.

Verdict: Home win

Twitter @youngsunecho

* Don’t miss tomorrow night’s online Football Echo – available for free on this website – for our verdict on Chelsea v Sunderland, plus the biggest and best coverage of SAFC and the local football scene.