Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Big spotlight is on Sunderland

Nicklas Bendtner.
Nicklas Bendtner.
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MEGA, massive, jumbo, super-duper Sunday will still have the appropriate seismic billing from Sky Sports as the title race goes to the final day.

But in reality, Sunderland’s participation in the last-gasp drama will surely be nothing more than a sideshow, an irrelevance as Manchester City lift the Premier League crown.

Had Manchester United held an advantage over their neighbours, or even been within touching distance in the goal distance column, then Sunday could have been one of the most intriguing afternoons in the Stadium of Light’s history.

What a tale it would have been if Sunderland’s array of United old boys could have denied Sir Alex Ferguson a 13th title.

But the prospect of entertaining fourth-bottom QPR at the Etihad is surely an opportunity Manchester City will not waste, even if Mark Hughes’ men are equally desperate for three points at the opposite end of the table.

The likelihood of City lifting the title will not alter the magnitude of attention on Wearside.

Lorry-loads of cameras will arrive at the Stadium of Light, along with a podium for a potential silverware presentation, should United profit from a slip-up by the neighbours.

It’s tough to see United wilting under that spotlight as Ferguson ensures his side fulfil their end of the bargain.

The big guns will all be on parade, with Ferguson hopeful that Danny Welbeck will shake off an ankle injury to return, even if fellow former Sunderland loanee Jonny Evans is ruled out with a foot problem.

But it will be no walkover job against Sunderland.

Although the Black Cats brought a premature end to their campaign several weeks ago by becoming almost immune from finding the net, they will doubtless raise themselves for one last time.

A sense of kudos comes with denying United the title, not to mention taking the scalp of Ferguson’s side – something they haven’t done in the league since 1997 when John Mullin grabbed what proved to be the winner.

Perhaps more importantly, Sunderland need a victory to have any chance of replicating last season’s feat of barging into the top 10 on the final day.

With 10th placed West Brom at home to Champions League chasers Arsenal, Sunderland do have a chance of gatecrashing the top half and fulfilling those heady pre-season objectives.

Certainly, it’s difficult to imagine Martin O’Neill experimenting too much with personnel, with prize money and places still up for grabs.

Nicklas Bendtner is likely to return to the side after being restricted to a late substitute’s role against Fulham last weekend following a foot injury in training.

It will be a farewell appearance for the Dane, whose loan move is not expected to be converted into a permanent switch despite topping Sunderland’s scoring charts with eight.

That is likely to be the only change from O’Neill, who has seen the options to tinker with his side restricted by injuries to Kieran Richardson, Seb Larsson and Wes Brown.

O’Neill could conceivably drop Stephane Sessegnon to a deeper role on the right, with Craig Gardner, Lee Cattermole and Jack Colback forming a central trio.

Cattermole showed in both outings against City that he can mix it with the best, but he must be less headstrong than he was at Craven Cottage where he played an unwelcome part in both Fulham goals.

If, as expected, United’s greater need for three points sees them prevail, Sunderland could finish as low as 14th.

But that doesn’t necessarily make this season a failure.

Sunderland could feasibly have been involved in a relegation scrap after being on a collision course with the dregs when Steve Bruce was dismissed in November.

The efforts Sunderland produced during O’Neill’s first months were remarkable, but they have taken their toll over recent weeks.

Sunderland have looked mentally and physically drained and the Black Cats need the healing powers of a summer’s break, along with the momentum injection provided by fresh recruits.

Even if this season does end on a losing note, next season harbours all the potential to be one to remember.

Verdict: Away win