Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Di Canio faces the acid test

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PAOLO DI CANIO may have scotched talk of utilising the expertise of a sports psychologist, yet tonight is the acid test of his ability to mentally prepare Sunderland’s players.

Suddenly, this is THE do-or-die encounter of the season.

Saturday’s results have thrust the pressure cooker back on the Black Cats. This is the great disadvantage of taking the cash-cow from Sky.

Had Sunderland been hosting a Stoke City side who had reached the psychological sanctity of 40 points on Saturday afternoon, Di Canio’s side would have been strongly fancied to secure the third straight win required from his stewardship.

But 48 hours later, Sunderland are hot under the collar.

They have seen Wigan narrow the gap with the relegation zone to just two points AND the Latics could even overtake Sunderland if the Black Cats lose tonight and Roberto Martinez’s men overcome Swansea tomorrow.

Aston Villa’s last-gasp win at Norwich has taken them to the magical 40-point mark, while the ailing Canaries, plus Newcastle, still boast a point advantage over Sunderland.

Neither will Stoke think they are necessarily safe now either.

Suddenly, 41 or at a stretch 42, looks like being the total required for Premier League survival.

Sunderland have to keep their cool to join that cluster of clubs on 40 tonight and then hope they can further improve that tally against Southampton next week.

Anything less and Di Canio’s side are in real trouble ahead of a final day jaunt to Spurs.

Under the final few months of Martin O’Neill’s reign, Sunderland choked in games like this – most notably the three successive encounters against Fulham, QPR and Norwich.

Di Canio must prove that the Villa rout was indeed a blip and he does have the capabilities of being the magical transformer of Sunderland’s fortunes.

This is a golden opportunity though and if Sunderland can overcome the Potters, then the perversely clustered lower half of the table could mean the Black Cats reach as high as 11th.

Credit Stoke with holding their nerve in the games that mattered against QPR and Norwich, when they looked to be that side plummeting ominously towards the drop zone and even a goal looked to be beyond them.

But Stoke haven’t won on Wearside since 1994 and were swatted comfortably aside 4-0 last season, in the final high of Steve Bruce’s reign.

Sunderland have coped well with sides practising the direct approach this season too, taking four points from West Ham, four from Newcastle and one from the Britannia, in October.

It has been when the Black Cats defence have faced a big, pacy frontman, capable of turning and running at the back four that they have struggled.

The likes of Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku and even Ishmael Miller in the Capital One Cup defeat to Middlesbrough, have proved too elusive to contain.

Peter Crouch isn’t in that same mould though and even if Cameron Jerome and ex-Sunderland man Kenwyne Jones have the capability, they seldom use it.

Nevertheless, Sunderland’s back-line was frighteningly brittle against Aston Villa and even if Paolo Di Canio is likely to persist with Carlos Cuellar and Phil Bardsley, the duo need to return to the doggedness they showed in the Tyne-Wear derby.

Di Canio’s changes are expected to be limited to the inclusion of James McClean in place of the suspended Stephane Sessegnon.

How Sunderland line up without Sessegnon will be far more intriguing.

Craig Gardner or Adam Johnson are the most likely contenders to replace Sessegnon in the hole behind Danny Graham.

Di Canio favours a support striker capable of moving between the lines and linking the play, and that perhaps suggests that Johnson may be the one favoured by the Italian, with Seb Larsson occupying the spot on the right flank.

Losing Sessegnon is undoubtedly a blow, but when Sunderland may only need one win to secure Premier League survival, they should still have the capability of achieving that without the mercurially talented Benin international.

Providing they can hold their nerve, this is the prime opportunity to secure that final win of the three targeted when Di Canio first took charge.

If nothing else, the Villa rout will have dispelled any complacency that the job was done.

Tonight is the last major step which Sunderland must overcome.

Verdict: Home win