Chris Young’s big-match verdict: O’Neill’s men must exorcise their demons in front of goal

Middlesbrough's Grant Leadbitter (right) and Sunderland's Lee Cattermole battle for the ball.
Middlesbrough's Grant Leadbitter (right) and Sunderland's Lee Cattermole battle for the ball.
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“WE JUST need a break,” pleaded Tony Pulis after Stoke’s blunt attack laboured to a sixth draw of the campaign last weekend.

Martin O’Neill could have repeated Pulis’s assessment word-for-word at the Britannia – even more so three days later when a Championship defence contained Sunderland’s statuesque attempts at a goal.

Whether it be by skill, fluke or error, Sunderland’s need to see the opposition net ruffle has reached red alert.

How O’Neill must long for a fortuitous winner via a backside, as their neighbours managed last Sunday.

For if Sunderland register another blank or, God forbid, lurch to another draw tomorrow, then this season will begin to flatline before it has even reached double figures.

There will be no real need for O’Neill to get hot under the collar – despite calls from several members of the moron brigade in the wake of Tuesday’s League Cup exit – but, perhaps even more dangerously, interest will begin to wane on the terraces if Sunderland fluff their lines again.

Sunderland will be out of the League Cup, meandering miserably in the bottom half of the table and toiling as an attacking force. It’s hardly the stuff to get pulses racing.

Ominously, there are a couple of ghosts who could haunt O’Neill tomorrow too and deprive him of that much-needed victory.

The sorcerer and apprentice angle will be one explored in detail, should Paul Lambert lead O’Neill’s former club to the three points they need as much as Sunderland.

And even if Darren Bent finds himself ostracised by Lambert, he will inevitably be desperate to silence the fans who barracked him mercilessly on his return to the Stadium of Light last season, if given an opportunity from the bench.

But the club links are sub-plots, side issues that must be shepherded aside for the central quest of goal-getting.

O’Neill at least has plenty of options to find a more cohesive combination going forward, with Seb Larsson, Craig Gardner and Danny Rose back in contention after caution saw them all rested against Middlesbrough.

Rose is a shoo-in to return at left-back, while Phil Bardsley’s successful return on Tuesday should see him keep his spot in the opposite full-back spot.

But the composition of O’Neill’s side further forward holds more intrigue.

Louis Saha is likely to resume his duties on the bench after an ineffective first start alongside Fletcher, while Gardner deserves a chance in midfield following his consistent performances at right-back.

But then does Larsson earn a spot on the flanks or in the middle – and who misses out? Stephane Sessegnon? James McClean? Jack Colback?

Team selection isn’t necessarily the issue, though.

These players simply haven’t performed as an attacking force so far this season and must change that pattern.

They won’t get a better chance to get the goals and victory needed to restore some sparkle though.

Lambert, without suspended Egyptian Karim El Ahmadi tomorrow, inherited a side stripped of the stars O’Neill assembled at Villa Park and on a limited budget, has been forced to raid the juvenile department for new recruits, other than big-money buy Christian Benteke.

With a side awash with youngsters, results have inevitably been inconsistent and this season will be a continual grind for Lambert, who won three league championships under O’Neill at Celtic.

But the £7million Benteke has proved an instant success and after Sunderland’s back four struggled to cope with the equally powerful and pacy Ishmael Miller on Tuesday, they will need to be on their guard against the Belgian.

Gabby Agbonlahor will test the lack of pace in Sunderland’s central defence too, even if he can’t boast a Premier League goal for 12 months.

Sunderland have the experience advantage in a high-stakes game though and they must test the trepidation in Villa’s ranks before the crowd begins to get exasperated. If they can get that early goal, it could be a comfortable afternoon. If not, it could be a long one.

Verdict: Home win