Sunderland host Norwich City this Sunday in the biggest Black Cat-Canary clash since Looney Tunes last aired. The visitors have struggled away from home this season, but have a tight defense against sides lower down the table, and this could prove to be a tricky one for Sunderland. Get ready for this crucial game by reading our preview.
Sunderland Team News
Sunderland have no new injury concerns ahead of this weekend, and indeed can welcome a couple of options back into the fold. Danny Rose will almost certainly start at left-back after coming off the bench against QPR, while James McClean should be healed of the illness that kept him out last week.
Perhaps most significantly Connor Wickham will be available after returning from his loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday. Given the lack of attacking options at the moment, this will no doubt be a relief to all those connected to Sunderland.
Given the embarrassing nature of last weekends defeat, it wouldn't be surprising if at least a couple of changes are made. Phil Bardsley played for the reserves in mid-week, suggesting he may come in at right back, which of course could mean a return to the middle for Craig Gardner, while Carlos Cuellar may also come into the back four. Elsewhere, given the poor performances of Danny Graham, O'Neill might be tempted to revert back to the 4-4-1-1 used earlier in the season, with Sessegnon playing behind Steven Fletcher. A move to 4-5-1 is another option.
Norwich Team News
Chris Hughton will have a decision to make over whether to use the two striker formation he played against Southampton, or revert to the 4-4-1-1 he usually uses away from Carrow Road. The latter would mean Wes Hoolahan playing behind lone striker Grant Holt.
Injuries to Anthony Pilkington (hamstring) and Andrew Surman (knee) leaves the team without a recognised left winger. Ellott Bennett is likely to come in and play slightly out of position. Alternatively, Hoolahan could be forced out left, with Holt partnering Kei Kamara or Luciano Becchio up front. In any case Hoolahan and Holt will remain Norwich's biggest threat; one an excellent creative player, the other a battling workhorse striker who could cause our fragile back four problems.
Elsewhere Alexander Tettey remains a long-term injury concern, while keeper John Ruddy could return to the bench as he continues his recovery from a thigh problem that's kept him out since November. Michael Turner returns to the Stadium of Light for the first time since his summer departure to Norfolk.
Sunderland: Mignolet; Gardner, Bramble, O'Shea, Rose; Sessegnon, Colback, N'Diaye, Johnson; Fletcher, Graham
Norwich: Bunn, Martin, Turner, Bassong, Garrido; E. Bennett, Johnson, Howson, Snodgrass ; Hoolahan; Holt
Key Matchup: Stephane Sessegnon Vs Javier Garrido
While who he'll come up against largely depends on where the Benin international will play, it's clear from his recent performances that Sessegnon is our key threat this weekend, and it would be a big help to Norwich's chances if they can find a way to stop him. If we are to assume that Sessegnon is to start on the right hand side then he'll come up against Spanish full back Garrido.
Garrido, a player who's very good on the ball and who likes to get forward, tends to struggle against players that run at him, meaning that Sessegnon could have some real joy against him if the Sunderland man is anywhere near his best. Garrido will have to work well with the rest of Norwich's back four, including the excellent Sebastian Bassong, to cut out the threat Sessegnon provides.
Recent Form: DLWDD
Draw: Queens Park Rangers 0-0 Norwich
Draw: Norwich 0-0 Fulham
Win: Norwich 2-1 Everton (Kamara 84, Holt 90+4; Osman 39
Loss: Manchester United 4-0 Norwich (Kagawa 10, 76 & 87, Rooney 90)
Draw: Norwich 0-0 Southampton
Last Time Around: Sunderland 3-0 Norwich City
A return to happier times under Martin O'Neill here. Norwich arrived at the Stadium of Light last February on the back of a six game unbeaten run, but they were outplayed by a Sunderland side that had been on fire since the arrival of their new manager.
Starting his first league match in 18 months, Fraizer Campbell opened the scoring with a glorious right footed volley from 25 yards out, completing the greatest Fraizer comeback since the Cheers spin-off was commissioned. Sunderland doubled their lead on 28 minutes, after some splendid team play ended in Stephane Sessegnon heading into the back of the net.
The Black Cats continued their dominance into the second half, and the side went 3-0 up when Phil Bardsley's fizzing cross was turned into his own net by Ayala. The game petered out after that, with Sunderland controlling the play and Norwich unable to find a route back. A repeat of this kind of performance would be very much appreciated on Sunday, however unlikely it may seem.
The Ref: Chris Foy
This will be part time cyclist Chris Foy's third game refereeing Sunderland this season, having taken charge of both the goaless draw at the Emirates on the opening day, and the 3-1 defeat to Manchester United back in December. Perhaps surprisingly, he didn't show a single card in either of these matches.
Foy had officiated 18 Premier League games this season, and has shown himself to have a bit of a lenient streak. He has only showed 37 yellow cards, and is yet to send a player off in the league. He was, however, the man who sent off Eden Hazard in the Carling Cup Semi-Final Second Leg against Swansea, after the 'ball-boy incident'.
What the Managers Said
It has been tough going throughout the season and we have to fight through these last nine games.
I was asked about being close to 10th and close to being relegated yesterday. It will be like that until the end of the season.
We need to get some points on the board. The players in the dressing room are disappointed but we're looking to respond as we have done before.
We're not making the individual errors that we had been. We're looking a fairly secure unit.
We look more compact, we are not scoring the amount of goals we would like or making life easy for ourselves, but you can't have everything.
Roker Report Predicts
With Sunderland desperate for a win, this is a crucial game, and it could prove to be a difficult one. After struggling earlier in the season, Norwich have tightened up their defence significantly, and have only conceded 8 goals against teams in the bottom half all season. 3 of their last 5 games have finished goalless, and for that reason we can expect a low-scoring game. I'm going to remain positive however, and predict a scrappy 1-0 win for the Black Cats.