Chris Coleman’s Sunderland travel to the North-West tonight to face off with Bolton Wanderers in what can only be described as the biggest game of our season.
If we can manage a win we’ll close the gap on our opponents to a single point. Lose, and Bolton will take a huge leap towards securing their Championship status for next season. Throw into the mix the fact that Barnsley host bottom-of-the-table Burton Albion - Sunderland can’t really afford to slip up.
One familiar face in the opposition line-up will be the Bolton goalkeeper, Ben Alnwick. Alnwick was tipped for big things at Sunderland before a deal worth a reported £1 million saw the Prudhoe-born youngster move to Tottenham Hotspur. As part of the deal, Martin Fulop arrived on Wearside.
Bolton have had a decent run of results at home. In fact, the last time they lost at the Macron Stadium was back on December 16th, when Burton Albion secured all three points with a 1-0 win.
Since then, Bolton have beaten Cardiff City, Hull City, and Bristol City, whilst picking up draws against Ipswich Town and Fulham. An eleven point haul from five home games is something we can only dream about.
Of course, it is their away form that has kept them within touching distance. Since the end of November, Bolton have only beaten Sheffield United on their travels having lost to Wolves, Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough, Brentford, Cardiff and QPR. Three points from a possible 21 is more like the form we know.
Mores the pity we are the ones travelling - although the Sunderland manager doesn’t seem to think that this is necessarily a bad thing:
For us, yes. There is less pressure on us probably to play away from home.
Coleman hinted that the players need to heed instructions and go for it, rather than sitting back. Switching back to his favoured formation and tweaking the personnel may be in order. A win was always necessary today, but it became even more vital after Saturday’s disappointing defeat.
The options available to Coleman have increased recently. Adam Matthews, Callum McManaman and Jonny Williams all returned to the squad on Saturday. Paddy McNair and Lamine Koné are expected to be available tonight. Hopefully, Ovie Ejaria will pass a late fitness test and take his place alongside them.
Coleman mentioned the need for strong, powerful players and Koné certainly fits that description, which is why we expect him to start tonight. Matthews played the second-half at left back, but we can expect him to switch to his favoured right wing-back role tonight if Oviedo returns to the side.
Jonny Williams equally played the full second half on Saturday and is certainly a player Coleman knows he can trust. Speaking ahead of the game tonight, Williams seemed to mirror the sentiments of his manager:
It comes down to confidence and belief and we need to find that quickly. We know we can beat Bolton, we should have done earlier in the season. It is a massive game, they’ll be looking at it as a winnable game just as we will be.
After tonight, we play Middlesbrough on Saturday. They may do us a favour this evening as they host Hull City, but it’s about us building some momentum now. Coleman spoke a few weeks ago of getting a foothold and going from there. Bristol City could have been that foothold, but it was not to be.
Tonight we start again, and this time we simply cannot fail.
The table suggests it’s still any three from six that will be relegated this season. Someone will start to pull away. Coleman hasn’t conceded defeat yet:
It can be us, if we want it to be. If you look at Sunderland in the last four games, you’d raise an eyebrow. But I still believe in the lads, we need to keep them fired up and positive.
Tonight is the night. Do the players want it to be us? Go and prove it, then.