Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Sunderland in need of early lift

Danny Graham.
Danny Graham.
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SUPPORTERS on first name terms with the pit-of-the-stomach dread that accompanies a relegation battle, recognise the signs of a do-or-die encounter.

Sunday, undoubtedly, falls into that category.

Earlier this week, Echo columnist and Sunderland legend Gary Rowell described the visit of Norwich City as a “cup final” and although the Black Cats players have emphasised that there are plenty of points still up for grabs in the subsequent eight games, they will undoubtedly recognise the magnitude of this weekend’s clash.

Win and Sunderland will move to the far more comfortable surroundings of 33 points.

Realistically, a five-point haul from the remaining eight games – considering Sunderland’s goal difference advantage – is likely to be enough for Premier League survival.

But lose, or even draw, and Martin O’Neill’s men are suddenly transformed from relegation outsiders to firm contenders, particularly with a run of games against Manchester United, Chelsea, Newcastle and Everton to come.

Sunderland would be the sinking ship of the Premier League and with QPR, Aston Villa and Wigan – albeit in the FA Cup – all recording morale-boosting wins last weekend, the situation would appear increasingly perilous.

Yet although Norwich have reached the relative security of 33, the Canaries still fear the drop themselves after suffering a similarly dramatic slump.

Chris Hughton’s men have managed to keep their points tally ticking over by drawing four of their last six games, but they have managed just one top flight win since mid-December – last month’s last-gasp victory over Everton.

Considering their form on the road this season too, Norwich, like Sunderland, will be plagued by nerves for Sunday’s televised encounter.

No one has scored fewer Premier League goals away from home than the Canaries, while only Southampton and Villa have conceded more on their travels. The loss of hamstring injury victim Anthony Pilkington doesn’t help Hughton either after the Republic of Ireland winger tortured Sunderland in the first half of December’s loss at Carrow Road.

And while Grant Holt will keep Sunderland’s central defenders occupied, he doesn’t boast the searing pace which the Black Cats rearguard blatantly lacks.

But there has to be a feeling that Sunday’s game will be decided by whether Sunderland can find a breakthrough before frustration begins to creep down from the terraces.

Three of Norwich’s last five outings have ended goalless, with the central defensive double-act of former Sunderland man Michael Turner and ex-Magpie Sebastien Bassong forming a decent partnership after an inauspicious start.

Ironically, despite the clamour for Danny Graham to start alongside Steven Fletcher, O’Neill may decide that leaving the January signing out is the best way of finding the breakthrough on Sunday.

Graham barely had a kick at QPR last Saturday and with Sunderland looking so open in a 4-4-2, there has to be a suspicion that O’Neill will revert to 4-4-1-1, with Stephane Sessegnon back in the hole behind Fletcher and well-again James McClean or Seb Larsson joining Adam Johnson out wide.

It would be a major surprise if O’Neill didn’t tinker with his line-up after an unchanged side has managed just one point in three games.

Danny Rose will almost-certainly start at left-back, freeing Jack Colback to compete for a central midfield berth, while there could also be a return on the opposite side for Phil Bardsley.

QPR boss Harry Redknapp clearly tried to exploit Sunderland’s makeshift full-backs at Loftus Road by pushing his wingers high up the pitch, and Craig Gardner, in particular, struggled to contain Junior Hoilett.

A recall for Bardsley, who has not started in the top flight in 2013, would allow Gardner to regain some confidence in central midfield, where neither Larsson nor Alfred N’Diaye have been able to dominate.

It is a big selection for O’Neill and one he needs to get right.

Otherwise those lingering fears will develop into a full-blown crisis.

Verdict: Home win