Sunderland travel this evening to the Pride Park Stadium to face a side managed by Gary Rowett for the last year and coached by Sunderland hero and former striker Kevin Phillips since September 2015. Together, they are keen to finally achieve the club’s ambition of joining the Premier League, having finished in the top ten for the past five seasons.
This will be our final game of March - a month which started with a trip to Millwall and looking out over four other games in the hope that we’d secure at least six points. In the end, we sit facing the final of those five games having added only a single point to the miserly 27 we had amassed by the end of February. 28 points from 38 games and five points adrift of safety.
However, with games on Good Friday and Easter Monday, the opportunity remains that we could exit this holiday period out of the bottom three. It’s a strange situation we find ourselves in, that two wins would bring us out of the relegation zone. Yet that is the truth of the matter. The reality, however, is another thing altogether, with three of the bottom four now destined for the drop.
Two games in four days means this is make or break and that was not lost on Coleman:
Two games in a short space of time, if you look at the other teams around us and who they’re playing, then 5 o’clock Monday could tell us a great deal, in a good way or a bad way. This weekend could change everything. It will either get worse or it could be a lot better for us.
Hull City hauled themselves clear in March with back-to-back wins against Ipswich and Norwich. Those two wins, and the point against Barnsley at the end of February, means Hull City have gained seven points from their last five games. Typically, with safety all but confirmed, they reverted to type and lost to Birmingham City last time out. Garry Monk’s first win means the Blues have three points, Sunderland and Barnsley two points and Burton just the one from the same five game period.
The team that escapes relegation will be the side that finds a bit of momentum. Will that be Birmingham, who have finally recorded a win? Or will that be one of the other three? As we face Derby, Burton travel to Cardiff and Barnsley host Bristol City. Perhaps crucially, Birmingham entertain Ipswich 24 hours later with the knowledge of how their rivals have got on.
If Sunderland are to be the team that builds some momentum it has to start now. Derby are a side sitting in the play-off places and need the points to cement their position. However, they haven’t won since the start of February and have drawn five of their last seven games, so perhaps there is hope that we could come away with a point. We arguably need all three if we are to escape our predicament, but stopping the run of defeats is surely a must.
Chris Coleman has some big decisions to make, if that is to become a reality. For example, who starts in goal? With Jason Steele available after his ban, does he come back in or does Lee Camp retain the jersey?
With Jake Clarke-Salter suspended and Ty Browning injured, Coleman will no doubt be eyeing up Marc Wilson for a return to the side. Adding further experience alongside Lamine Kone and captain John O’Shea may not be an altogether bad thing, if he is insisting on retaining the much-maligned three centre-half formation. The defence need to be a lot tighter as we enter the final stages of the season if we are to be the team that climbs out of trouble.
The defence may be an easy decision, but who does the manager elect to start with in midfield? There have been calls this week for Aiden McGeady to be the catalyst around which Coleman should build. Six goals and four assists make him, arguably, our most prized attacking threat, but he hasn’t been able to hold down a regular place under Coleman. It is imperative that the Welshman finds the best role for McGeady going into the final stages of the season, especially with the creative Williams and now striker Joel Asoro injured.
Speaking about the young Swedish star, Coleman said:
He had a bang on his jaw really, but because it’s a head injury you to be a 100%. The rules, obviously there’s a timeline if a head injury or a concussion is suspected, there’s a timeline. So, the first game he’s an absolute no-no. but Monday he’s got a chance.
That surely means Ashley Fletcher will come into contention for a recall after sitting out the Preston defeat. Whether he will be asked to lead the line, with McGeady playing some advanced midfield role, or whether Fletcher will be a straight replacement for Asoro and partner Josh Maja in attack remains to be seen.
If recalled, Fletcher will have to start realising the potential which brought him to Sunderland in January. Similarly, Maja needs to step up and use the stage he’s being given to show why he is so highly rated. With Kevin Phillips watching from the home bench, we have to find a way of getting our current strikers firing on all cylinders.
The players have had a break since the last defeat. Hopefully, they’re back with energy, desire and understanding of what we now need to do, as a football club, to save ourselves from the unthinkable relegation and all that brings with it. But it has to be this weekend. If we arrive at 5pm on Monday without more points on the board it may be too late to recover.
I believe we can achieve it, I believe we can get away from where we are. I believe we’ve got a squad of players that if we hit the right notes, we can most certainly, at least, make other people around us very nervous. With a bit of momentum, we can get away from where we are, I believe that, I do believe that.
Let’s hope Coleman is proved right.