MICK McCARTHY has refused to label Sunderland's crunch meeting with promotion rivals Wigan a title-decider - insisting he is in no mood for making predictions as the race for the top two enters the final straight.

With five points separating the two teams ahead of this evening's first against second encounter at the JJB Stadium, victory would give Sunderland a huge upper-hand in their quest to win the Football League.

Nearly 8,000 supporters will be making the trip from Wearside to Lancashire to witness one of the Championship's biggest matches of the season.

But, even if Sunderland extend their lead over the Latics to eight points tonight, McCarthy insists he will be in no mood to start planning a return to the Premiership just yet.

The Black Cats have won seven successive games and McCarthy admitted: "We know if we keep winning games then there's not much anyone else can do about it. We have won seven on the spin and it's unlikely that we will get to 13 on the spin, so there's sure to be a nasty twist somewhere.

"It's a matter of getting the amount of points we need. All I know is that whatever we do the others have to win two more games than us. We were in the same position last year chasing the top two. I prefer being in this position. This way we can just take each game and let the others worry about catching us."

As a player McCarthy had to deal with the pressures of helping Celtic to the double in 1988 with Rangers attempting to catch them at the top of the Scottish Premier.

He also played his part in Manchester City's promotion push from the old Second Division in the mid-eighties, but over a decade on, McCarthy is still experiencing new feelings during Sunderland's charge for Championship supremacy.

"I'm only human to feel the emotions of it all. I can't say it doesn't affect me, it's not anxiety, I just like to say let's get on with the next game, which in this case is Wigan. I'm resisting forecasting and I'm trying to tell everyone else to," he said.

McCarthy has worked wonders on a shoestring budget, building a squad full of talented youngsters who have the potential to go all the way.

And, after proving his managerial ability at Championship level, he will have another tough test next season if Premiership status is secured.

McCarthy, whose only other taste of top-flight management was when he was asked to save Sunderland from imminent relegation a couple of seasons ago, knows it will be a step into the unknown.

"I've never tried it in that league. The only time I have been there is when we were 50 points (sic) adrift and I had a job to keep us up which was optimism gone wild," said McCarthy.

"All I know is that we recognised players last season who we thought could step into this level. We watched them, identified them and it's worked up until now. You can never guarantee it's going to work because even players brought to the Premiership for £10m have failed, without naming names."

McCarthy has added striker Brian Deane to the squad for tonight's game after he missed Saturday's win at QPR with an ankle injury. George McCartney will be missing again with the hip/groin problem that he has had for the past fortnight.

* Wigan boss Paul Jewell has to decide whether to change the side that lost at home to West Ham on Saturday, with Alan Mahon pushing for a place in the starting line-up.

Paul Jewell agrees with Ipswich boss Joe Royle's assertion that Sunderland have been the most consistent team in the Coca-Cola Championship this season - but insists the title race is far from over.

And Wigan manager Jewell has every belief his unfashionable Latics can bounce back from Saturday's 2-1 defeat by West Ham to halt the Black Cats' seven-match winning run tonight.

''Joe Royle has gone on record as saying Sunderland are the most consistent of the top three - that speaks for itself because they're ten points clear of fourth place,'' he said.

''At this moment in time they're the best team in the league because they're top, but we're not giving up on anything - if we can play like I know we can, we're more than capable of beating them.''

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