Can Sunderland Better Wigan's Achievement?

Sunderland find themselves in a similar position to the Wigan side of last year as they prepare for a cup final against City amid a survival battle. Can they better their predecessors?

Last Updated: 27/02/14 at 14:49 Post Comment

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Last May, Manchester City lost a cup final to a team about to be relegated. Will the same, to the benefit and detriment of Sunderland, happen again on Sunday and this season?

The Capital One Cup final is being played in very different circumstances to Wigan's FA Cup triumph, starting from a City perspective. Manuel Pellegrini suffered a blow last week in the Champions League last 16 but his hold on his job is far stronger than the slipping-fingertip grasp of Roberto Mancini, whatever some of the bizarre media reactions to the defeat by Barcelona may have suggested.

City enter the game as overwhelming favourites but as not quite the unstoppable goal machine they seemed really quite recently. In a seven-game run that began with beating West Ham 6-0 at home and ended with shellacking Tottenham 5-1 at White Hart Lane, only once did City net fewer than three, and that was in winning 2-0 at Newcastle; but since the Spurs game, five matches have yielded only four goals.

Chelsea conceded two of these in the FA Cup but their 1-0 win at Eastlands and Barcelona's 2-0 success there last week have put a check on City's ambitions; they remain my tip for the title but the grand slam is highly unlikely.

To judge from last Saturday's game at Arsenal, Sunderland are capable of restoring a team's scoring verve. Yet they are much improved under Gus Poyet from Paolo Di Canio's shambles, even though they remain in difficulty. A goal would quickly settle City but they may just be feeling a little nervous at the possible derailment of what had felt like an inevitable march towards multiple successes, when they were rattling up 100 goals in such extraordinary short order.

In Sunderland's marked favour in terms of Premier League survival is that they are one struggler among many rather than among few; by the time they arrived at Wembley, Roberto Martinez's Wigan were right on the brink.

Sunderland are still in the relegation zone but winning on Sunday should not be any handicap. It is true that Birmingham managed to go down after beating Arsenal in 2011 but - crucially - they were managed by Alex McLeish. Di Canio left behind a record of one point from five matches; 23 have come in the 21 games since, at a points-per-game ratio high enough for 12th if maintained across the whole season to date.

The pressure facing two other in-running appointees - Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Pepe Mel - and that has accounted for Rene Meulensteen gives Poyet especial cause for optimism when it comes to survival; Cardiff, West Brom and Fulham are all in danger of imploding, a threat Sunderland removed by sacking Di Canio and bringing in the Uruguayan. Victory would surely not be allowed to go to the heads of Lee Cattermole and whoever else gets to play.

There are plenty of reasons to hope for a Sunderland win. There is the neutral's natural backing for the underdog, enhanced by City's obscene petrodollar wealth. There is the value to a cup competition of reminding the lesser lights that they can grab a share of the glory that is impossible in the Premier League era for so many top-flight clubs; paradoxically, Sunderland's only route to a comparable high in the league would be to be relegated then come up via the play-offs. Only in the cups can the advantages of the richest be overcome.

For some there is also the schadenfreude to be derived from watching Newcastle fans (and especially Mike Ashley), trophyless for 44 years, having to suck it up as the neighbours parade the silverware. But the number one reason I head to Wembley hoping for a Sunderland success is the unusual factor of the previous manager.

Di Canio did not deserve his elevation to the Premier League. He has acted even more gracelessly out of a job than he did in it. A victory for Poyet, followed by survival, with the players the Italian trashed would be another blow to the reputation of a manager English football is better off without. Survival would be imperative, too, but Sunderland can pull off their double and, in concert with Barcelona, leave City chasing merely one of their own.

Philip Cornwall

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