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If They Don't Gain Ground, Sunderland Must At Least Hold Their Position This Weekend

In the wake of local elections, with gains and holds up and down the country, Sunderland must make sure they at least hold their precarious position before they battle for safer seats.

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Must not lose. That much maligned phrase. Against Chelsea though, it does hold a lot of weight. In the week of local elections, Sunderland's game against Chelsea is very much their equivalent of Labour battling for seats in Scotland whilst Newcastle will play the part of the SNP, when they face Aston Villa. The former expected to lose and the latter very much favoured to come out victorious. So forgotten are Norwich City, they're the Liberal Democrats of the relegation battle. Next week however, Everton and Watford represent Sunderland's heartlands, where we can be more confident of a win provided we still remember remember to collect the bins on time. So anything is a bonus this weekend for Sam Allardyce, the opinionated, divisive, leader draped in red against a blue opposition.

The priority for Sunderland has to be keeping Chelsea out, as they did against Arsenal. Calls for a more attacking line up on Saturday, whilst understandable, shouldn't be considered. Look to the Arsenal game and how well we stifled the attacking talent in The Gunners ranks, that's what we'll have to do again against another formidable forward line. Chelsea haven't had the season they planned on, but the likes of Willian, Diego Costa, Pedro and Eden Hazard are still more than capable of beating a relegation threatened side.

The key to limiting Chelsea's chances will be another stellar performance from the midfield. Not just against Arsenal but against Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool we've witnessed strong displays from the likes of Jan Kirchhoff, Lee Cattermole and Yann M'Vila. Their defensive qualities will of course be paramount against tough opposition as they'll need to break up play and work hard off the ball, as they did against Arsenal, but they're still capable of influencing the game in an attacking sense. If M'Vila presses that little bit higher up the pitch and Cattermole & Kirchhoff are playing quick, direct balls to launch our attacks on the break then we can get goals against a Blues defence that has leaked goals all season. People get too bogged down in our usual midfield trio being too "negative" but if Kirchhoff picking opposition pockets then playing a defence splitting pass or Cattermole setting up Jermain Defoe with an exquisite 40 yard ball is negative, then I embrace pessimism.

A midfield three that, first and foremost, can stop Chelsea gives us the best chance of taking anything at all from the match and it won't leave our attackers isolated either. Playing Cattermole, Kirchhoff and M'Vila allows Patrick van Aanholt and DeAndre Yedlin to express themselves and with van Aanholt being a big contributor in terms of goals and assists, you wouldn't want to remove that threat. Wahbi Khazri can certainly play himself into the game as he works hard and, to once again go back to the Arsenal game, will press the opposition well whilst being a total menace when running at the defence.

If Sunderland do line up with more focus on attack then we don't leave ourselves with many alternatives on the bench, if things start going wrong. There isn't a lot of depth amongst our substitutes at the moment, certainly from an attacking sense, so if Sunderland are still chasing the game with not long left it will feel like they've already shown their hand and the only cards left in the deck are jokers. Their strongest hand is the one that has kept the chips rolling in and it also gives good alternatives if the pack needs shuffling later on. Duncan Watmore would be the only likely new starter but, for now, he's a better option when coming off the bench and running at tired defences. Against a Chelsea defence that isn't exactly swift at the best of times, that could have a big significance.

A draw is a good result tomorrow, no matter what happens elsewhere. Of course we want to win and in a game as chaotic as football, in such a mad season which is reaching a crazy crescendo, we just might take all three points. If we only take one though and other results go as expected, it will keep us three points behind Newcastle with a game in hand. That means a win against Everton would, more than likely, have us going into the final game level on points and with a stronger goal difference.

There may not be long left but we do need to think a little bit beyond this weekend. It may be easier to think in the short term as the season gets shorter but there's still nine points for us to play for. We must take at least one tomorrow as we look to retain our seat in the Premier League parliament.

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