Following the disappointment of defeat in both domestic cups over the past fortnight, Gus Poyet's Sunderland have the perfect opportunity to bounce back by climbing out of the Premier League's bottom three with victory over fellow strugglers Crystal Palace—it's essential that they grasp their chance with both hands.
Since Poyet's appointment, there is no doubt that Sunderland have improved. Prior to the Uruguayan's arrival, the Black Cats were cut adrift from safety and looked certainties for the drop; however, the former Brighton boss has installed belief amongst his side and they now have a genuine chance of survival.
Nevertheless, with games running out it is absolutely vital that they can climb out of the relegation zone as quickly as possible; a win on Saturday would almost certainly ensure that they do.
|16th||Crystal Palace||28 played||27 Points||- 16 GD|
|17th||West Brom||28 Played||25 points||- 11 GD|
|18th||Cardiff City||29 Played||25 points||- 28 GD|
|19th||Sunderland||26 Played||24 points||- 16 GD|
Due to their cup commitments, as well as February's postponed match at Manchester City, the Black Cats are now up to three games behind their relegation rivals. Whilst it does mean that they've got more points to play for, the games will come thick and fast and a home tie against Crystal Palace is one which fans will expect their side to win.
In 19 games under Poyet's management, Sunderland have picked up an acceptable 23 points. Whilst this isn't a phenomenal return, a seasonal average of 46 points would be more than enough to retain Premier League status and if the Black Cats can continue this form throughout their final dozen matches then they will be plying their trade as a top-flight club again next year.
According to the Sunderland Echo's Graeme Anderson, the 46-year-old coach has set his players the target of five wins during those final 12 matches—one could only assume he has pinpointed Saturday's contest as one of them.
Who will win Saturday's match?
Should Sunderland claim the spoils on Saturday then they will leapfrog Tony Pulis' men on goal difference. With West Brom and Cardiff facing tough away trips, to Swansea and Everton respectively, the Wearsiders could climb to 16th in the table. If they could then follow that up with a win at Carrow Road next week then Premier League survival would look a very likely outcome indeed.
However, including those recent cup exits, Sunderland's only win in five matches came at home to Southampton in the FA Cup. Since the emphatic 3-0 derby day demolition of Newcastle on February 1, the Black Cats have lost to Hull and Arsenal in the league and will be desperate to get back to winning ways here.
The next few weeks will be pivotal to the Wearsiders' survival bid and Poyet will be looking for points over performance. He will have been proud of his side's display at Wembley but, with attentions turned to the league, it is now a business where results are king. As long as Sunderland retain their Premier League status, nobody will care how they achieve it.
Like Sunderland, Crystal Palace have seen drastic improvements under their new manager; Tony Pulis has worked wonders with the Eagles, resurrecting them from the dead to their current position of 16th.
However, Palace have still only picked up seven points on the road this term and if they are going to stay up then it will be a result of their form at Selhurst Park only.
At this stage of the season, momentum is key—particularly at the bottom. After recent disappointments, the Black Cats will be feeling low on confidence but if they can give themselves a timely boost by winning here then their chances of survival will be strong.
If they lose, then the alarm bells will surely be ringing around the Stadium of Light.
Can Sunderland beat the drop? Post your thoughts below.