MENTAL toughness has not been one of Sunderland’s particular strengths this season.
In each of the last two games, Sunderland have succumbed after scoring the opening goal, while the Black Cats have lost all of their away trips to sides struggling for confidence at the wrong end of the table – Crystal Palace, West Brom, Swansea, Hull and Stoke.
But boss Gus Poyet believes whichever side can overcome the battle in the mind tomorrow will triumph at Upton Park, with both teams under pressure.
Only goal difference separates fourth-bottom West Ham from the relegation zone, with scrutiny growing on manager Sam Allardyce, although the ex-Sunderland defender stressed yesterday that he wouldn’t be sacked if the Iron lost this weekend.
Meanwhile, Sunderland are five points adrift at the Premier League’s basement, with Poyet admitting tomorrow’s game is a “must-win” for the Black Cats.
Poyet told the Echo: “It’s more than 50-50 when it comes to the mental, over the physical, aspect.
“It’s going to be who can handle it better between the two teams.
“It’s not about individuals, it’s a team. We need to be together, stronger mentally, and then play our game. If you do that you’ve got a great chance.
“For us at the moment, something always seems to happen.
“But I want to be in the same position we were against Aston Villa when we were a team. That’s the only thing I want to see.
“If we are a team, then we will be very difficult to beat.”
Poyet expects the Hammers, who have won just one of their last eight league encounters, to come out of the traps strongly and has warned his players to be ready to contain the early onslaught.
He said: “I’m expecting West Ham to start well. They’re at home and expecting to win.
“Then it’s up to us how we control it and, if the game is still 0-0, it will be nervy. No doubt.
“But it will depend on who is stronger mentally.
“We’ve been working on controlling the game as best as we can.”
Despite Sunderland’s ominous league position, Poyet believes a win tomorrow could prompt a hasty turnaround in the Wearsiders’ fortunes.
He points to the example of Crystal Palace, who were lying below Sunderland in the table three weeks ago, but are now level with West Ham after a stunning run since the appointment of Tony Pulis as manager.
Poyet added: “Crystal Palace couldn’t win a game and they’ve won three from four.
“That shows you that it’s so close.
“Sometimes you don’t even need to deserve to win. You just need to win a game.
“If you don’t have any more games, you’ve got no chance, but we’ve got plenty so we have to take that opportunity.”