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MST, The Arizonan

Sunderland must win against Fulham

last updated Tuesday 27th January 2009, 10:22 AM

Premiership Sunderland Manager Ricky Sbragia
Sunderland Manager
Ricky Sbragia

Sunderland manager Ricky Sbragia will oversee the most important game of his short managerial career tonight – and even the mild-mannered Scot admitted a defeat would be catastrophic.

Compared to the occasionally incendiary rhetoric that flowed freely from the mouth of his predecessor, Ricky Sbragia cuts a decidedly low-key figure as Sunderland manager.

Soaring sentences do not come easily to the quietly spoken Scot, so when he admits that defeat against Fulham tonight would be a “devastating” blow to Sunderland’s survival fight, the statement should gain instant credibility.

A cursory glance at the Black Cats’ next three league fixtures, with Newcastle and Stoke to follow, adds credence to Sbragia’s claim – and illustrates just how important it is that Fulham’s 10-game run without an away victory continues.

It could be a definitive contest for Sbragia and his Sunderland side. It was at this point last season when Roy Keane masterminded the three home victories that did so much to keep his team in the Premier League.

How a team with only three home wins all season could do with another victory now.

It would also be a timely fillip for Sbragia, with elements of Sunderland’s support still sceptical about his management credentials.

Indeed even by modern standards, Sbragia’s honeymoon with some Sunderland fans has been a short one.

Since his appointment, following on from a pair of critical wins over West Brom and Hull City, results have been mixed and the lack of transfer activity and bombastic statements of intent have led to some supporters who were used to Keane’s soaring ambition becoming edgy.

The edge should have been taken off those worries by news of the block-busting deal offered to Kenwyne Jones to ward off interest from Spurs – but victories in the phoney war of the transfer window are no substitute for wins on the field.

And Sbragia, for all that he might exude a cool, calm and collected air in public, is fully aware that the next three games could shape Sunderland – and his own – destiny.

“These next three are the most important games this season. Tuesday is a massive game for us as a club – we’ve got to get past that one,” he admitted.

“It would be nice to win it but it would be devastating if we lost it. It’s a game we must win. We need to take the game to Fulham but on the other side we’ve got to be slightly cautious because Andy Johnson’s a handful and Bobby Zamora’s good, too.

“They had a tough game on Saturday and used a lot of their top players, we hope that takes a bit of the sting out of them.”

To Sbragia’s credit, he possesses a sharp tactical mind and has been working on a plan to overcome a Fulham side that will adopt a ‘safety first’ philosophy.

Djibril Cissé and Jones, with question marks over his future seemingly erased, should provide the firepower while Sbragia toys with the idea of a recall for George McCartney after 20 minutes of football on Saturday. Paul McShane looks like a risky option given his unsteady return against Villa but the Sunderland manager’s hand could be forced if he doesn’t believe McCartney possesses the match fitness to last the full game.

Kieran Richardson has trained for the past three days and could be fast-tracked back into the side.

Whatever happens, Sbragia admits it is a litmus test for his team’s ambitions.

“This week will test us. For me Tuesday is the big test, not what we do in the transfer market. Fulham is the challenge – we need a good result,” he said. “We changed the team because of it and from my point of view I know what’s going on in the transfer market, we’ve got our targets but we’ve got to focus on the game.

“The nucleus of the players that we left out of the team on Saturday will come back in – although some players did very well on Saturday and they might have a chance. We know it’s going to be difficult – they haven’t won away from home but Fulham have been impressive this season. They went to Villa and Liverpool and got draws, they play deep and they’re difficult to break down but we’ll be working on how to do that in training.

“We know how we think they will set up, it’s up to us to break them down. We know we have to win – it’s incredibly important that we close the gap on Fulham.”

The congested nature of the Premier League’s bottom half has left top-flight managers scrambling to revise their estimates of how many points will guarantee safety.

For the scientifically minded bosses – and as a disciple of Sam Allardyce, Sbragia would consider himself one of their number – it has been a hot topic of conversation.

Fulham survived with 36 points last season but the accepted wisdom is that one more victory than the Cottagers earned is the least that will be required to ward off the threat of Championship football.

Forty points appears to be the minimum target that Sbragia is setting for his team – adding more importance to a fixture against Fulham that looks distinctly winnable.

“I was speaking to Sam after the game and speaking to someone at Man City who does a lot of their computer stuff who was with me at Bolton,” he said.

“We used to do a lot of targets there and we’re agreed that 40 points might be what we need. So it’s a little bit more than it was last season.

“So what do we have to do? It’s six or seven wins and we need to hope that other teams falter.

“We need five at home, too. We’ve still got to play each other. The games at home, the likes of Fulham and Wigan, we’ve got to win. Newcastle is obviously very, very important. And we’ve got to start winning our home games.”

Sbragia knows as well as anyone that process must begin on a chilly evening in Wearside.

Source Mark Douglas at The Journal
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