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Tuesday, 07 February 2012

Sunderland: Could the Black Cats make a late bid for a Champions League place?


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Sunderland’s 1-0 win over Stoke City in the snow on Saturday afternoon was the club’s seventh in their last 10 outings and Martin O’Neill’s sixth since he took charge of the Black Cats eight games ago. They have picked up more points than any side in the Premier League over the past eight games and with just 10 points separating Sunderland in eighth and Chelsea in fourth, could O’Neill sneak a top four finish?

Now naturally some of you will be reading this and thinking I’ve been drinking some home-made brew of something, and I’ll admit that this is pretty far-fetched – after all, it wasn’t that long ago that Sunderland were struggling to stay out of the bottom three under Steve Bruce.

However, since Martin O’Neill took over the Black Cats look like a different beast altogether. Whereas once the Wearsiders couldn’t score in a brothel, they are now hitting the target more than serial shagger Russell Brand in his prime. At one time they couldn’t keep a clean sheet for love nor money, Saturday’s shutout at Stoke was their fifth under O’Neill. Bruce could only manage four in five months. And at one time you wondered if the players had the ability to even create a paper aeroplane, now they could build you an exact replica of a Boeing 747.

The amazing turnaround is down to one man, the messiah Martin O’Neill. He has given the players belief in their own ability, he’s given them licence to express themselves on the pitch and you can see they would run through brick walls to please the gaffer. Unlike most former Sunderland managers, O’Neill is a fan of the club and he knows exactly what the club means to the paying public.

O’Neill is a born-winner and his infectious character gives everyone around him a lift. He guided Leicester City to League Cup success in the 90s and won it all in Scotland with Celtic, even guiding them to a UEFA Cup final. O’Neill also led Aston Villa to three top six finishes and a Carling Cup final, however, there is a section of the Villa faithful who became bored with O’Neill’s style of play. I bet they are wishing he was still at Villa Park now.

Sunderland go into this weekend’s game with Arsenal 10 points behind fourth placed Chelsea but it is not beyond the realms of possibility that they could squeeze in above Liverpool, Arsenal, Newcastle and Chelsea. Just look at this weekend’s fixtures. If they go in Sunderland’s favour they could be right in the mix. Chelsea are away at Everton – which is never an easy place to go – Liverpool are at Manchester United and Newcastle are at Spurs. It is quite possible that Sunderland can beat Arsenal and Everton, Manchester United and Spurs will do them a favour by picking up three points too. That could put the Black Cats just seven points behind Chelsea.

The Black Cats also have a number of huge games left to play which could determine who ends up in the final Champions League spot. At the beginning of March they face Newcastle, followed immediately by Liverpool before taking on the leaders Manchester City at the end of the month. Spurs are their first opponents in April before they end the campaign with a visit of Manchester United.

In between those games Sunderland play a host of strugglers in West Brom, Blackburn, QPR, Everton, Wolves, Aston Villa, Bolton and Fulham and on current form you can’t see them dropping too many points.

Confidence is sky high at the Stadium of Light and O’Neill will be telling his players daily that they can still end the season as winners. They are still in the FA Cup, with a home game against Arsenal the prize if they can see off Middlesbrough, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Black Cats do something really amazing between now and May.

It may seem like a long shot, after all O’Neill failed to hit the top four when he was at Villa and Sunderland’s best finish in the Premier League was seventh in both 2000 and 2001, but football is all about dreaming. There’s nothing wrong with aiming for the stars but only hitting the ceiling. At least you’ve had a go at fulfilling your dreams. However, there is something seriously wrong about just having survival as your main target.

Martin O’Neill gives players hope and encouragement and that lets them do things that they may not normally do; shoot when they’d usually pass and attack a defender when they’d usually go sideways. It’s these small factors that can change games and history.

Publicly no-one at Sunderland will be talking about Europe, but that must be on O’Neill’s mind after a fantastic start to his Sunderland career. His main objective when he arrived was to avoid the drop. He’s done that with three months to spare. His long-term goal is to build a team capable of challenging for Europe. Inside two months he may have already achieved that with the bunch of under-achievers that Bruce had.

A top eight finish would be a remarkable result for O’Neill and Sunderland, but maybe, just maybe, they could record one of the Premier League’s biggest shocks ever by sneaking into the Champions League places. But what do you think?

Calling all Sunderland fans. Do you think you have an outside chance of sneaking into the top four or has Colin been drinking out of the same glass as O’Neill? What is it like to see your side getting results and climbing up the Premier League table? How highly do you rate Martin O’Neill? Sunderland are still in the FA Cup but what would you rather achieve, a place in the FA Cup final or a top four finish? Whatever your view, we’d love to hear from you.

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Colin Illingworth

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