Sunderland face two major hurdles when they return to the Stadium of Light this afternoon: a Boro side that have beaten us in the league and knocked us out of the cup already this season, and a simmering crowd that is ready to accept that League One football is becoming an inevitability.
Given that Hull City beat Sheffield United United last night, this game just got a whole lot bigger - if that’s possible.
Chris Coleman will have to raise his team for a crucial - but not a derby - game, if we are to have any chance of changing the atmosphere around the ground, come 5pm.
Earlier this week the Sunderland manager commented on the pressures of playing at home;
I understand the fear factor at the Stadium of Light, I understand we’re on the back of three or four years of negativity. Who could blame our supporters for feeling like they do? You couldn’t. But, we’ve got to carry that and what we do now is, if we do perform, even if it’s half empty at the stadium they make a lot of noise.
All we need to do at home is to show some bite from the first minute.
What’s the worst that can happen? We’re playing at the Stadium of Light, we’re playing at Sunderland... from the first bell, the first whistle, go for it, let’s go for it.
The players need to come out and immediately get the crowd on their side. They need to have us believing they are capable of keeping us out of the clutches of League One.
Too many visiting managers have used the frustrations from the stands to wear Sunderland down, but if the home side heed their manager’s words, there’s nothing to fear from a crowd that is willing the side to fight its way out of the current predicament.
Middlesbrough’s recent away form may give a glimmer of hope - they have lost against both Norwich City and Cardiff City on their travels this month. But, make no mistake, this will be a tough game for us to turn a corner. Boro spent big in the summer and failure to secure a play-off place will be a huge disappointment for them.
Generally, their form has been steady and, since they beat us in the cup back on January 6th, they have recorded wins against QPR, Reading and Hull City, whilst picking up a point at home to Sheffield Wednesday. A league form of three wins, three defeats and a draw from their last seven games isn’t altogether a bad return and leaves them in touch with the play-off places.
This will be a game they’ll be targeting to close that gap as they continue a run of winnable fixtures. Having beaten Hull City with a brace from the now injured Rudy Gestede and a goal for Patrick Bamford last time out, they will be eagerly anticipating the match today before playing both Birmingham and Barnsley later this month.
Given how fragile our defence has been throughout the season, I’m sure Pulis will cast off his usual cautious approach to an away game and tell his side to kill us off early. It will be a test of character and mentality; something Coleman spoke about this week.
The manager is clearly trying to galvanise a ‘them and us’ mentality to change the losing culture and rally his troops;
Everybody hates us, every wants us to fail and fall flat on our face.
People will look at it as Sunderland, what a story that is, back-to-back relegations, we’ve got to have that underdog mentality, keep it tight, us against the world.
People still see us a scalp, they want us to fail, so let’s get that amazing feeling when you shut them up because you’ve got the results when everyone has written you off.
If we get that mentality I think we’ll pick up wins.
Its amazing what you can do just by being positive and having a real determination.
You can get by with a bit of talent, but you can get by a lot easier and go off a lot further with a real good mentality.
In terms of changes, it’s highly likely Coleman will simply tweak a side that finally showed a bit of fight and desire on Tuesday. But for better finishing, it was a game Sunderland’s dominance could have won. It was a huge opportunity, but one that is now gone. Coleman will want to see the same ninety minutes on home soil.
Adam Matthews has recovered from a hamstring injury but, like Ovie Ejaria, needs to be assessed before the game. Paddy McNair added drive to the midfield on Tuesday and Jonny Williams will have had another week’s training under his belt. The one likely change is the return of U23 striker Josh Maja, as Ashley Fletcher is ineligible to play against his parent club.
The players need to hear the words Coleman is speaking. Today, they need to cross that line without fear, win over the crowd and take the game to Boro. We’re running out of time to save ourselves.
As the manager has said:
We have to get on the right road this Saturday, start closing the gap.