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It’s last-chance saloon for Sunderland; FIVE KEY QUESTIONS ahead of tonight’s game with Norwich

Sunderland’s incredibly slim chances of staying up practically hinge on a win tonight against Norwich coupled with results going our way elsewhere - can they do it? Here are the FIVE key questions going into the game.

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Is the great escape still on?!

Ok... ok... hear me out. I know it’s almost impossible for us to stay up now, but are you telling me that if results go our way tonight there won’t even be a small incline of hope within you that we could possibly achieve the unthinkable?

In preparation for writing this piece I took a look at the league table and the upcoming fixtures, and I think I’ve convinced myself that we might still be able to do it.

No - I’ve not taken a boatload of hard drugs, nor have I been given a brown envelope by a big-wig at the club in order to spread faux positivity ahead of a big game. It might have something to do with the good day out I had down at Leeds, and the promise shown in our recent performances that indicates that there’s still something left in the tank with this team, but I still think that if things go our way today our chances of survival mightn’t be as unrealistic as they appear to be.

Birmingham’s resurgence has dragged out-of-form Bolton back towards the drop zone, and they’re still very much in trouble. They have to get past Millwall tonight, who are scrapping like mad in a bid to make the play-offs. If they lose, and Barnsley fail to pick up anything away to Ipswich, that combined with a win for ourselves will leave us just four points adrift, with our next two games against poor opposition in Reading and Burton.

It’s all hypothetical of course, but stranger things have happened and I’ve no doubt that if we manage to pick up a victory this evening there’ll be more than just me thinking we still have a chance of clambering out of the drop zone.

Who fills the McNair-shaped hole?

Chris Coleman confirmed yesterday in his press conference that Paddy McNair is a serious doubt for tonight having picked up a knock at Elland Road - incredibly unfortunate news, particularly since the Northern Irishman has been our best player since returning to the side in recent weeks.

If he does indeed miss the game it leaves Chris Coleman with something of a selection headache. With options limited, what does he do to get around the fact his best midfielder is missing again?

The two options he has at his disposal are Ovie Ejaria and Ethan Robson, neither of whom are as dynamic or imposing as McNair but certainly have the legs and energy to get around the pitch.

He could of course move Lynden Gooch further inside, and I’ve no doubt that he can do a job in the middle in the absence of the former Manchester United man, but the American has been one of our strongest players when playing out wide in recent weeks and it’d be a shame to displace him when he’s seemingly on a roll.

If it was me I’d play Ethan Robson. He’s not been seen for a while now but he had a canny run alongside Cattermole a few months back, and in front of the home crowd it might be a good time for him to play and show what he can do ahead of next season.

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2nd of 3 games in 7 days - will we ring the changes?

Perhaps the biggest take from Coleman’s press conference yesterday was the news of injuries to Marc Wilson and the aforementioned McNair - two players that have been no strangers to extended stints in the treatment room this season - and it acts as a timely reminder that some of these players simply don’t have it in them to play an extended spell of games in a short period of time.

We have another match on Saturday, away at Reading, and you have to wonder whether Coleman will pick his team tonight with one eye on that game.

Joel Asoro and Kazenga LuaLua must be chomping at the bit to play from the start and it might be a chance for Coleman to rest Aiden McGeady, for instance. Jake Clarke-Salter is back available and if Coleman finds himself tempted to go back to a five man defence there may well be a place for him in his side too.

Whilst I thought he played relatively well, Ashley Fletcher looked tired for the last half an hour of Saturday’s game and it might be a chance to try something different up top, depending upon whether or not he’s recovered well in the last few days.

Alternatively Coleman might just see this as our last chance to pull close to those above us and will pick what he perceives to be his best team - and if that’s the case I could hardly argue, particularly since we’ve seen a more well-rounded team unit across the last three performances.

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Can we get over our home hoodoo?

Our form at the Stadium of Light is absolutely rank. We haven’t won any of our last six games on Wearside, picking up just one point from a possible eighteen, and it’s safe to say that our inability to turn up when it matters in front of a home crowd has been a big part of why we sit second bottom in the table.

It has to change soon, though. Mentally the players seem unable to get past the fact there are 20,000+ expectant home fans waiting on them to eventually turn a corner, and whilst that pressure grows with each passing game we probably won’t get many better chances than to turn it around tonight.

Norwich like to play keep-ball and we’ve done well more often than not this season against teams like that, so if they rock up this evening trying to play out from the back it would seem that the best thing that our players can do is to get into their faces from the off and give the home fans something to get behind.

If we can carry forward the momentum we have from some improved recent performances we’ll give ourselves a much better chance of achieving victory tonight, I’m sure of it.

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Will Coleman learn from his Leeds mistakes?

I thought our game plan down at Elland Road at the weekend was, in the main, pretty flawless but there are a couple of things that Chris Coleman did that didn’t really help us, and I hope he’s learned from it ahead of tonight.

When we beat Fulham and Burton earlier in the season it was as a result of Coleman being forward-thinking and brash, particularly with his substitutions. He took gambles that paid off and we won the games as a result.

It was a shame, then, to see him be so conservative on Saturday. I felt he left it a bit late to make changes, and as a result we weren’t quite prepared to take the game to Leeds when the opportunity presented itself upon Gaetano Berardi’s sending off.

Hopefully Coleman will be more proactive tonight if we find the game hanging in the balance with half an hour left to play, more like he was when he first arrived and wasn’t scared to take chances at opportune moments.

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