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Summer transfers survey

Sunderland Jul 20, 2014
Read
Apr 30, 2014

Can the battle of Old Trafford seal Sunderland's safety?

Not many teams near the bottom of the Premier League would relish a run-in that offered Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United as the last four away games.

It should not matter, of course. If a team is good enough, so the consensus would probably have it, it surely had plenty of opportunities to get a few points on the board in the earlier games against more modest opponents. Sunderland were not good enough, though arguably they are now.

Saturday's visit to Old Trafford should not be an especially tense experience for Guy Poyet's lately impressive players. Manchester United have scarcely set the world on fire this season. There have been home defeats and draws and, in the Capital One Cup semifinal second leg, a penalty shoot-out win for visitors who happened to be Sunderland.

Add to that the cushion of Sunderland's two home games to come, with West Bromwich Albion and Swansea the less-than-ominous opposition. Moreover, the midweek WBA fixture, four days before all 20 Premier League sides play the last game of the season with a simultaneous kickoff time, is a game in hand on the other clubs fighting desperately for Premier survival: Norwich City, Cardiff City and Fulham.

All of this should aid Poyet's cause. His team can go out and play with the same verve and commitment shown in the previous away games against top-three sides. They know they are expected, rationally, to leave Manchester with no points and a damaged goal difference. They also know those games at Anfield, the Etihad and Stamford Bridge yielded an entirely improbable four points. Even at Liverpool, the home fans were baying and praying for the final whistle after Sunderland fought back to 2-1.

But if United supporters can feel, for once, that this is a bad time to come up against a side hungry for survival, playing out of their skins, Sunderland fans have similar reason to worry. From the ashes of a fairly hopeless season, by United standards, the sacking of David Moyes and interim managership of a club hero, Ryan Giggs, have combined to get a few embers glowing once more.

Both clubs had 4-0 home wins last weekend, both results -- United walloping Norwich, Sunderland thrashing Cardiff -- greatly helping the Sunderland cause. There will be goals on Saturday afternoon.

I approach all games with at least a hint of pessimism. So no one should read too much into my fear that logic -- and the Giggs factor -- will prevail and that Poyet will be left to secure safety with those final games at the Stadium of Light. I have been wrong before and hope I am wrong again.

But how, against those fears of mine, can Poyet fashion a non-losing result?

He must start by sticking with more or less the team that did so well to beat Chelsea and Cardiff. The on-loan full backs, Santiago Vergini and Marcos Alonso, must be as threatening going forward as they were in those games and also pay more attention to their defensive roles.

John O'Shea and Wes Brown, former United players, must be utterly committed to showing their former employers and supporters they can still defend stoutly at the highest level. Seb Larsson, Jack Colback and Lee Cattermole have to keep prodding away in midfield -- and avoid anything worse than a yellow card apiece -- and there must be more magic up front from Adam Johnson, Fabio Borini and the reborn Connor Wickham.

I would also stick with Jozy Altidore and Emanuele Giaccherini on the bench. Both are capable of making telling late contributions, as Altidore did at Chelsea and Giaccherini managed with his killer passes at Man City and finely taken goal at home to Cardiff. And both have points to make to national coaches ahead of Brazil.

Slips by other relegation contenders -- I honestly feel it is now three from the bottom four, leaving Villa, WBA and the other effectively safe -- would make the last week of the season and those remaining home games a lot easier to bear.

Long experience tells me life is unlikely to be so simple. Having failed so spectacularly for most of the season, Poyet's men have to face up to the need to do what I believe they can and tough it out.