Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Rovers win was just the start!

Seb Larsson celebrates his winning goal against Blackburn Rovers in Martin O'Neill's first game in charge.
Seb Larsson celebrates his winning goal against Blackburn Rovers in Martin O'Neill's first game in charge.
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REGARDLESS of the worthy ambitions of consolidating Sunderland’s top half status at Ewood Park tonight, this clash pails into insignificance compared with December’s reverse fixture.

Yes, Sunderland need the points if they are to continue to cast lustful eyes towards the top eight and remain on the coat-tails of their neighbours.

But Martin O’Neill’s first game in charge against Blackburn at the Stadium of Light was the pivotal moment of the entire season.

Had David Vaughan and then Seb Larsson not masterminded a spectacular late turnaround, the whole momentum of the O’Neill revolution would have been instantly lost.

Such were the rock-bottom confidence levels on Wearside at that time, Sunderland could easily have mimicked what has happened to QPR since Mark Hughes succeeded Neil Warnock, where the enthusiasm over the new manager fails to create a bounce effect.

Tonight’s encounter has an entirely different complexion with Sunderland safely embedded in mid-table, free from the 24-7 relegation worries of the bottom five.

In the grand scheme of things, staying ninth or moving back up to eighth hardly compares with pure Premier League survival though.

While Sunderland scrap to finish on top of the mid-table pack, tonight’s game holds far more significance for Blackburn.

On the quiet, Steve Kean has emerged from the consuming image of a dead man walking into a manager who could complete a remarkable turnaround.

When Blackburn ominously headed to Old Trafford on New Year’s Eve, they lay bottom of the pile with a meagre 11 points from 18 games. The chances of them following West Brom as the only Premier League side to lie bottom at Christmas and still survive, looked remote.

But victory against Manchester United sparked a run of 14 points from 10 games, a stunning tally considering the scarcity of wins for those in the bottom five.

Blackburn now lie in a position of strength, potentially moving six points clear of the drop zone if they can register their first back-to-back wins of the season tonight after a crucial 2-0 victory at doomed Wolves 10 days ago.

The Ewood faithful will fancy their chances looking at the game on the paper.

Kean’s fresh and near full-strength side face a Sunderland outfit still without their two pivotal players, physically drained from a demanding draw at Everton three days ago and consumed by the prospect of FA Cup success.

But fatigue, depleted options or Wembley glory have hardly affected the Black Cats during O’Neill’s reign. Far from it, the adversity has simply spurred them onto new heights.

O’Neill may consider introducing fresh legs tonight, but he has barely shown any signs of supporting the notion of “squad rotation” to date.

He may simply restrict his changes to any enforced ones, most notably Phil Bardsley if he fails to recover from the sore ribs aggravated against Everton.

Bardsley had been touch-and-go to feature at Goodison Park anyway and his potential absence is likely to see Craig Gardner fill in at right-back.

That leaves David Vaughan to take Gardner’s spot in central midfield – a switch that barely weakens Sunderland’s options.

O’Neill will hope Gardner maintains Sunderland’s resilience at the back, particularly against an attack as potent as Blackburn’s.

Only the top six have scored more than Blackburn’s 40 goals and the predatory instincts of Yakubu, coupled with the pace of Junior Hoilett, will test Sunderland’s defensive resolve.

But it is at the other end where Sunderland can probe Blackburn’s deficiencies.

Blackburn’s rearguard has been breached 60 times in 28 games, with only basement boys Wolves conceding more Premier League goals this season.

That will give the likes of James McClean, Fraizer Campbell and Nicklas Bendtner heart that they can find openings on the break, particularly now that Blackburn’s defence has lost man-mountain Christopher Samba.

If Sunderland’s back-line, revolving on the Michael Turner-John O’Shea central defensive axis, neutralises Blackburn’s attacking threat, then Sunderland have every chance of nicking the points on the counter-attack.

Whatever the result though, it’s impossible not to dwell on the progress Sunderland have made in the three-and-a-half months between their respective meetings with Kean’s side.

Verdict: Away win