LAST SEASON, a home game against Coventry City proved a pivotal moment in determining Sunderland’s fate. The hope, ahead of the Sky Blues’ visit to Wearside at the weekend, is that the same will be true of the current campaign. Just with a markedly different outcome.

April’s game with Coventry proved remarkable for all the wrong reasons as Sunderland crashed to a 5-4 defeat. It was their only home league loss under Jack Ross, and the ramifications were serious, both in terms of their league position, with the Black Cats losing touch with the automatic promotion slots, and the mindset of their manager, who adopted an increasingly conservative approach in the final month of the campaign. Had Sunderland not lost so spectacularly, perhaps they would have scrambled to promotion.

As it was, they missed out in the play-off final, so find themselves lining up against Coventry again tomorrow afternoon. For the second season in a row, it could be a defining encounter.

Tuesday’s FA Cup replay defeat at Gillingham was a dispiriting affair, and means Phil Parkinson has now won just two of his nine matches as Sunderland manager. Having had a blank schedule last weekend because of the international break, his side head into tomorrow’s game in ninth position in the table, 11 points adrift of league leaders Wycombe Wanderers.

That is an alarmingly large margin, and while Parkinson is still settling into life on Wearside after replacing Jack Ross, a failure to win tomorrow could make a push for automatic promotion all-but-impossible just 16 games into the season.

“We have two home games now, and they’re two really important ones,” admitted centre-half Alim Ozturk. “It’s a quick turnaround (from Tuesday night), but a chance to put things right.

“I think we’ll be ready for the next two games. We have enough experience in the team as in the group for that. Hopefully, we can get good results there, and put ourselves in a good position. Everything looks different then.”

Having been without a host of senior players for the cup defeats at Scunthorpe and Gillingham, Parkinson should be able to name a much stronger squad tomorrow.

Jon McLaughlin, Conor McLaughlin and Tom Flanagan are back from international duty, while Jordan Willis and Joel Lynch should be available after sitting out the midweek cup game. George Dobson should also be able to start, while Marc McNulty will be given every chance to prove his fitness.

With Willis and Lynch available, Ozturk could find himself back on the bench, although Parkinson’s decision to replace the Turkish defender at the start of Tuesday’s extra-time period reflects his importance. Even though the game was in the balance with the scoresheet blank, Parkinson did not want to risk leaving Ozturk on the field given the injury problems that have hampered him all season.

“I’ve been struggling with my hamstring for a while,” said Ozturk. “Every time when I came back, I felt it again, so it was strange. But it was all right last week, so I trained a big part with the group.

“I had trained with the team and felt good, so I had to play, and I did for the team. It was alright until the last 17 minutes (of normal time) when everything was getting a bit stiff, so I was struggling a little bit at the end. I wanted to play through, but the 90 (minutes) was the maximum for me. I couldn’t do more.”

Having re-established himself under Ross towards the end of last season – ironically coming back into the team after the Coventry debacle – Ozturk is hoping to convince Parkinson he merits a sustained run in the team.

“You want to you want to be fit, especially when a new manager comes in, and I hope I can stay fit for a long time now,” he said.