Sunderland have encouraged their supporters to ‘dare to dream’ with their Capital One Cup run. But they come up against formidable opposition in Manchester City on Sunday. Here, Sports Writer Richard Mason highlights five areas in which the battle will be lost or won.
MANCHESTER CITY have been a dominant force in the Premier League in 2013-14, but have found life difficult against Sunderland in recent years. Will this be a factor on Sunday?
The pair have not met in a neutral location since 1937 - when City victored 2-0 in the Charity Shield - but Sunderland, surprisingly, have held the upper hand in recent years when City have visited Wearside.
City have not beaten Sunderland on their travels since 2008, and the Black Cats have defeated the cash-rich Manchester side 1-0 for the last four consecutive seasons, including a memorable Ji Dong-Won goal on New Year's Day in 2012.
It would have been five, if a certain Adam Johnson, then in Sky Blue, had not equalised in 2010 under then-manager Roberto Mancini.
Home or away, Sunderland’s record against City is not too shabby. They have lost just three times out of the last nine encounters between the two sides, and, regardless of league positions, are confident going into Sunday’s game.
But the manner of two of those defeats will serve as a warning. Last season’s 3-0 defeat at the Etihad Stadium showed City to be the dominant, attacking force they are known to be, while their 5-0 demolition of Sunderland in 2011, against a creaking Michael Turner-led defence, goes to show that on their day, City can devastate.
SUNDERLAND’S BIG GAME PERFORMANCES
WITH the exception of last weekend’s 4-1 defeat at league leaders Arsenal, Sunderland, under Gus Poyet, have performed generally well against teams in the top half of the table.
While the Black Cats have stuttered in games where they were expected to victor, Norwich at home, West Ham United away, Fulham at home on the opening day of the season, they have saved their best performances for the big games.
Fabio Borini celebrates with team mates after scoring from the penalty spot to put Sunderland 1-0 ahead at St James' Park earlier this year
As well as their victory against the Citizens earlier in the season, there has been a rare double against Newcastle United, beating Chelsea and Manchester United in the Capital One Cup, and seeing off Everton at Goodison Park on Boxing Day - all admirable results for a team that has been near the bottom of the table all season.
It could be argued that Poyet’s possession football has more of a chance of success over teams in the top half of the table than the attritional battles served up in the bottom six, but the evidence suggests that Sunderland’s players relish the opportunity to shine on the biggest stage and have reserved their better performances for the bigger games. Sunday’s is by far the biggest.
CITY’S DEVASTATING ATTACK
WITHOUT overstating the situation at all, Manchester City have been fearsome in front of goal this season.
Manuel Pellegrini’s side have scored 114 goals in all competitions this season, fast closing in on the record set by Matt Busby’s Manchester United side in 1956-7, when the Busby Babes fired in 143 goals.
Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo lead the way with 26 and 23 goals respectively, the pair scoring more goals than Sunderland (40) have managed all season.
Edin Dzeko, despite playing second fiddle to Aguero and Negredo, has managed 17 strikes, six of which have come in the Capital One Cup.
Conversely, Sunderland have been poor in front of goal this season. Jozy Altidore and Steven Fletcher, the club’s main strikers, have five between them. Adam Johnson is the top scorer with nine to his name, while on-loan Fabio Borini has weighed in with five goals.
One crumb of comfort for the Black Cats is that just four teams have prevented City scoring this season - Stoke City, Chelsea, Barcelona, and Sunderland.
CATTERMOLE V TOURE
GUS POYET has wrapped Lee Cattermole in cotton wool in the run-up to the final, leaving him out of the defeat at Arsenal in case he was to pick up a red card and miss Wembley.
And he may have good reason to. In Liam Bridcutt’s absence, Cattermole will play as the deep-lying midfielder in front of the back four. His task is a formidable one, facing down a City midfield boasting David Silva, Samir Nasri, Fernandinho and Yaya Toure, but Toure in particular rates the role that Cattermole plays for Sunderland.
Toure has relished physical challenges presented by Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes, but ranks the Stockton-born schemer as one of his toughest ever opponents.
"Scholes was small but don't be fooled, he was tough," he told the Daily Mail in 2011. “There are others, too. The one at Sunderland, what is he called? Yes, (Lee) Cattermole, that's him. Very strong!"
With Fernandinho City’s midfield enforcer, Toure has been given licence to roam and bomb forward to devastating effect this season - and it is down to Cattermole to keep him quiet on Sunday.
THE DEMICHELIS FACTOR
EVERY manager has his pet player. Poyet brought Bridcutt to Sunderland at the first opportunity having managed him at Brighton and Hove Albion. But while Bridcutt is cup-tied on Sunday, Manuel Pellegrini’s own blue-eyed boy is likely to make an appearance underneath the famous arch.
Martin Demichelis has played for Pellegrini at River Plate and Malaga, before joining the Chilean at the Etihad Stadium over the summer - a peculiar move, considering City’s seemingly infinite resources, bringing in a 33-year-old whose best days were arguably behind him.
Demichelis also played at Bayern Munich between 2003 and 2010, a time during which the now-European champions failed to progress beyond the quarter-finals of any continental competition.
Demichelis was signed by Pellegrini as cover, but found himself given plenty of game time, particularly in the defensive midfield role owing to Fernandinho’s injury earlier this season. He has erred in two key games for City this season, firstly against Chelsea in the 1-0 league defeat at the Etihad, then last week in the Champions League defeat to Barcelona, where he gave away a penalty and was sent off for a challenge on Lionel Messi.
If Sunderland are to get any joy on Sunday, Demichelis should clearly be viewed as a chink in City’s considerable armour.