Chris Young’s verdict: Dilemma over Gardner

Craig Gardner
Craig Gardner
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FRESH eyes in the dug-out invariably prompts fresh views on one player who finds himself instantly thrust into favour.

Dean Whitehead epitomised the industry and work ethic Roy Keane was looking for.

Jordan Henderson was promoted from promising academy product to top prospect under Steve Bruce.

And James McClean immediately got his big break once Martin O’Neill had seen the winger in action for Sunderland’s second string.

Paolo Di Canio has dished out plenty of praise to his charges during the first four weeks of his tenure and rightly so.

But Craig Gardner was the player that immediately stood out to the new Sunderland head coach, who admired the battling qualities of the Brummie in a situation which continues to demand a scrapping mentality.

Far from being a utility man who could be unceremoniously shifted between full-back and midfield, Di Canio sees Gardner as an integral cog in his future plans.

Yet the return of Gardner for the trip to his former club tonight presents Di Canio with a major dilemma.

Does Di Canio break up a side which played with such dogged determination against Everton or is Gardner important enough to be thrust back into the starting XI after his two-game ban?

Far from being caught in two minds though, Di Canio has little hesitation in being ruthless towards the side which ended the Everton jinx.

The head coach gave a huge hint to the Echo on Saturday that both Gardner and fit-again Phil Bardsley would be included from the start tonight.

“I am 99 per cent certain of the team I want for Monday because this game is crucial and it is important to have energy, experience and quality,” said Di Canio.

Bardsley will surely be preferred at right-back to Jack Colback, even if the makeshift defender performed so valiantly in subduing Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar last weekend.

And it is McClean – Gardner’s replacement against Newcastle and Everton – who is the most vulnerable to Gardner’s return in midfield, a change that would see Seb Larsson revert to a wide role.

Aston Villa are likely to be unchanged though, providing ex-Middlesbrough left-back Joe Bennett shrugs off an ankle problem.

Paul Lambert paid the price for an adventurous line-up at Old Trafford seven days ago, with Manchester United’s willingness to take their foot of the gas sparing Villa a mauling akin to December’s 8-0 rout at Chelsea.

But a gung-ho approach is imperative tonight from the hosts, for a game which even the publicly cautious Lambert admits is “must-win”.

Wigan have edged closer to Villa after a draw against Spurs on Saturday and can still boast a game in hand.

Tonight’s clash, and the weekend trip to Lambert’s former club Norwich, is colossal for Villa.

Anything short of four points from the two games would leave Villa facing a daunting finale, with a visit from Chelsea and then a final-day showdown at Wigan.

The pressure is all on the hosts. Sunderland know back-to-back wins have eased their relegation worries significantly and even a point in the Midlands would be regarded as a qualified success.

Inevitably, there will be an early burst from Villa and, with the pace of Gabby Agbonlahor, craft of Charles N’Zogbia, industry of Andreas Weimann and power of Christian Benteke, there is plenty to worry Sunderland’s back-line.

It is that attacking arsenal which has transformed Villa from what looked like goners, to a team boasting a far healthier chance of survival.

But if Sunderland can subdue Villa during the early stages, then the Black Cats can begin to prey on the tension creeping down from the terraces onto the pitch.

Villa have gone 18 Premier League outings without a clean sheet and there will be chances against their rookie defence, particularly from set pieces.

The incentive of getting to the magical 40 points should give Sunderland an extra spring going forwards too.

Win tonight and the relegation battle is all but over, with effectively just a point needed to confirm Premier League survival, due to Sunderland’s vastly superior goal difference.

But denying Villa three points, however it is done, would be a major step.

Verdict: Draw