Chris Young’s big-match verdict: On the up!

Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio.
Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio.
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EVEN before a muddied Paolo Di Canio left the pitch at St James’s Park, his focus reverted to the next hurdle on the journey towards Premier League survival.

As he bathed in the adulation of the euphoric and slightly disbelieving travelling supporters, Di Canio gave a clear message by pointing upwards.

That mantra was reinforced to the players when the Italian returned to the dressing room afterwards and issued a relatively brief address about the need to follow up derby success against Everton.

For Di Canio, this week has very much been a case of one bogey team down; one to go.

In the Premier League era, only Peter Reid has savoured Sunderland success on Tyneside or beaten Everton.

After just two games, Di Canio has already broken one of those hoodoos. Now can he mastermind a first win over the Toffees since December 2001?

Certainly the Stadium of Light should be a buoyant place tomorrow.

Di Canio will be greeted like a prodigal son, who returns home bathed in glory after triumphing in battle against the fiercest of enemies.

But the atmosphere shouldn’t detract from the daunting task in front of Sunderland to record the win which would leave them with half a foot in next year’s Premier League.

Everton were at their dogged, physical best at the Emirates on Tuesday night, where a point against Arsenal has kept the slim Champions League hopes among David Moyes’ squad alive.

The Toffees are still rank outsiders for the top four, with Arsenal four points ahead and Spurs two, coupled by the luxury of a game in hand.

But with nerves beginning to fray at the business end of the campaign, Moyes will have far from given up hope of taking advantage of any slip-ups.

Realistically, a point against sixth placed Everton would be a more than acceptable result for Sunderland.

A draw would keep Sunderland embroiled in the relegation scrap, but would crucially maintain the momentum from the derby ahead of three successive games against sides lingering alongside the Black Cats in the bottom half.

Di Canio’s men need to reproduce the energy and intent from the former West Ham striker’s first two games in charge though.

Moyes, like Di Canio, is operating with a thin squad and even if he incorporates the likes of Steven Naismith, Phil Neville, John Heitinga or Nikica Jelavic into the side tomorrow, the mammoth effort at Arsenal will have inevitably taken its toll.

Sunderland are fresh, and need to make the most of that by responding to the crowd with a high-tempo approach.

That can be done against Everton; the Black Cats proving as much when they menaced Moyes’ men during the opening 45 minutes at Goodison in November.

But on that day they were undone by the brilliance of Marouane Fellaini and the Belgian will again be the prime threat to Sunderland’s defence tomorrow.

Di Canio will hope Carlos Cuellar and Phil Bardsley can shake off the knocks sustained on Tyneside, particularly the latter while Craig Gardner completes his two-match ban.

Kader Mangane will be on stand-by to make his first Sunderland start if Cuellar is ruled out, although the Spaniard may be pressed into action at right-back, should Bardsley succumb.

Unless injuries intervene though, Di Canio will surely persist with the derby side, even if he can call upon Connor Wickham again. Those XI, plus pivotal substitutes Mangane, David Vaughan and Jack Colback, proved themselves in the do-or-die game of the season.

But if Sunderland are comfortably swatted aside tomorrow, that feel-good factor will immediately be deflated.

Di Canio is well aware that he can’t afford to let that happen.

Verdict: Draw