SUNDERLAND go on a revenge mission this weekend hoping to pay back Fulham for an opening day defeat at the Stadium of Light which was to have such profound consequences, not just for the Black Cats’ season but the destiny of head coach Paolo Di Canio.
When the bones of this season are eventually raked over, hindsight might suggest the 1-0 reverse back in August, courtesy of a Pajtim Kasami goal, was THE key game in Sunderland’s season.
Had the home team won a match they almost entirely dominated and played the better football in – with new signing Cabral many fans’ choice for man-of-the-match – their season could arguably have panned out very differently.
It certainly would have bought Di Canio more time than just the five games he got.
And it might have given the Wearsiders the one quality they have conspiciously lacked all season – confidence – enough confidence to gain a bit of momentum and avoid the horror show that has unfolded.
But Di Canio is history now. As is Cabral.
As, for that matter, is Fulham boss Martin Jol – all three paying the price of not coming up to scratch in the most ruthless league in the world.
And just as time and events have moved on, so have these teams, with August’s match likely to have no influence or bearing on the outcome of tomorrow’s return.
Sunderland go into the game a changed team in more ways than one under Gus Poyet and though the Uruguayan says this is a game the Black Cats need to win, he is unlikely to alter the slow, patient, passing game which has become the norm under him.
Nor should he – that style is far more suited to away games than it is to home matches where the onus is on Sunderland to attack.
Poyet himself spoke to the Echo recently about how it seems strange that sides in the Premier League these days almost seem to prefer to play away from home where there is less pressure on them from the home support to go on the attack.
There’s something in that.
But while Fulham’s players are likely be as nervy as Sunderland’s in such an important game, the mild crowd at Craven Cottage are not the sort to get on the players’ backs.
More important to the outcome of the match will be the quality of the defence on both sides and, in that respect, Sunderland have an edge.
Marcos Alonso impressed everyone in his debut at left-back against Manchester United in midweek and with Wes Brown and John O’Shea set to extend their solid partnership in central defence and rejuvenated Phil Bardsley likely to get the nod at right-back in front of a goal tended by in-form Vito Mannone, the Black Cats’ rearguard has a genuinely solid look to it.
It will need to be too.
In Dimitar Berbatov and ex-Sunderland star Darren Bent, not to mention returning hero and regular goalscorer Clint Dempsey, Fulham have the players to unlock any defence should the mood take them.
Sunderland’s defence has improved markedly under Poyet though and there is no escaping the fact that Fulham are the only side in the Premier League with a worse goal difference than their opponents this weekend.
Fulham have conceded 17 (SEVENTEEN!) goals in their last six games, including a 6-0 defeat at Hull City and tomorrow are unlikely to be able to call upon their best (but injured) defender Brede Hangeland to marshall a back-four in front of a keeper, David Stockdale, who can inspire little confidence.
It all depends upon whether Sunderland’s rearguard is firm and whether Fulham’s attack is blunt.
And it all depends on whether the Wearsiders can resist Fulham’s early surge and whether Poyet’s players can find the cutting edge to go with their impressive but often ineffective ball retention.
The last time these two teams met in London, Sunderland won 3-1, and what they wouldn’t give for a repetition of that scoreline this weekend!
The Black Cats’ goal heroes that day were Steven Fletcher, Carlos Cuellar and Stephane Sessegnon, but the real turning point of the game was the harsh sending off of Hangeland for a foul on Lee Cattermole on the half-hour.
It could be the same again this weekend.
For all the preparation and planning, it could come down to the fickle finger of fate.
Goals change games, but so do sendings off, as does poor decision-making, or a rich stroke of good luck.
The bookies will probably make a draw the most likely result and you can’t blame them for that.
Personally, I think that for all Sunderland’s solidity, Fulham have too many unpredictable attacking options for them not to score against the Black Cats.
But I’m banking on one or two of those “star players” who have yet to hit the purple patch which fans have craved, to suddenly come to the party, now that the Wearsiders have lost only one game in eight and have been boosted by their cup heroics.
Poyet’s men are down at the bottom right now, but they are far from out.
I think they can edge it if they show the same resolve they showed in their last two away games, at Everton and Cardiff.
Prediction: Fulham 1 Sunderland 2