Sunderland leapt out of the relegation zone last Saturday lunchtime thanks to a stunning victory on Tyneside. The Mackems humiliated the Geordie’s on their own turf for the second year running, handing them their third victory over Newcastle in under 12 months. Gus Poyet has overseen a dramatic improvement in his side’s recent performances and most crucially, the results have also been positive. They have scraped themselves from off the foot of the table in recent weeks, showing tremendous form in the league, as well as booking their spot in the Capital One Cup Final against Manchester City at Wembley in a month’s time.
There was a sense that Newcastle could be there for the taking last weekend, any side losing a player of Yohan Cabaye’s ability would undoubtedly feel the mounting pressure of an upcoming Tyne-Wear derby. They came into the game with only one win in their last six games, including a home defeat to Cardiff in the FA Cup. On the other hand, Sunderland were on a run which had seen them lose only two games in fourteen across all competitions.
Since the end of the 12/13 season, a total of 21 new players have come through the entrance doors at The Stadium Of Light. That is a staggering overhaul of playing staff. New manager Gus Poyet was responsible for five of these signings in the recent January transfer window, whilst a hectic summer last year saw previous manager Paulo Di Canio bring in 16 new players. This proved to be too many to hit the ground running, and Di Canio ultimately lost his position following a terrible beginning to the 13/14 season, culminated by rumours of rifts inside the camp.
No longer are the Sunderland players failing to meet those lofty expectations that were so publicly demanded by Paulo Di Canio. Gus Poyet has instilled the same hard working ethos into his squad as his predecessor, however, the most significant difference being, Poyet appears to get a positive response from the players through his methods. Adam Johnson looks once again like a player who could challenge for a spot in a team chasing honours at the top of the table. He has demonstrated the kind of ability that will no doubt catch the attention of England manager, Roy Hodgson, scoring 7 goals in his last 8 appearances. There are also numerous places up for grabs for a certain tournament due to begin in June, the Brazilian World Cup. If Johnson were to continue in this rich vein of form from now until May, there can’t be many who would begrudge his seat on the plane to Rio.
Sunderland manager Gus Poyet had this to say on Adam Johnson post-match: “If he continues to play like that, no doubt he can go to the World Cup and we will be safe from relegation. We were good in December, but something was missing. Now, he is creating the difference. He has not been more confident during his time at Sunderland. I say it’s not all about blaming the player. When you have a player of his quality, you have to play a certain way to take advantage.”
Fabio Borini, on loan from Liverpool, has begun to improve his personal performances, showing the kind of potential that has seen him regularly capped for Italy U21’s. Standout performances from previously banished Phil Bardsley, whom has been given a new lease of life following Poyet’s arrival, and South Korean Sung-Yong Ki, amongst others, has created the kind of unity and standard of performances needed to ensure Premier League survival.
Last weekend’s victory was about more than local bragging rights. Sunderland have been stuck in the relegation places since August. There has long been a proven theory named, the ‘Curse of Christmas’. It states that if a team is bottom at Christmas, they are certain to go on to be relegated come May. Only one side has avoided this fate since 1992, West Bromwich Albion in the season 2004/05. Fabio Borini gave the Black Cats the lead at St James’ Park from the spot after Vurnon Anita’s clumsy challenge on Phil Bardsley. Adam Johnson doubled the advantage after a deflection took Jack Colback’s shot away from goalkeeper Tim Krul. Newcastle improved in the second half, but were hit on the counter-attack by Colback’s smart finish to ensure the Mackems were revelling in their old foes misery.
A look at the table below shows how Sunderland have progressed over the last six games since Boxing Day, rising from the leagues lowest standing in 20th, impressively up to 14th .
(Premier League Table – 26/12/13)
(Premier League Table – 03/02/14)
This is a side Poyet has already masterminded a 1-0 victory over earlier this season at the beginning of his reign. He will be hoping his side can continue this momentum leading up to the final, giving his side a realistic hope of challenging for victory, as opposed to merely going through the formalities for a routine City victory as many have suggested. Of course the Premier League is the ultimate priority, ask anyone involved in Wigan Athletic whether they would trade their Europa League spot for a place back amongst our domestic elite.
There is no cause for debate as to which any one would prefer, but, it is the history of winning a trophy that can never be forgotten in the years to come. Sunderland are now 90mins away from doing so come March 2nd, Poyet will naturally crave the success of both a trophy and survival now he has them in his sights. If he were to mastermind a Wembley success alongside Premier League survival, becoming only the second team to defy the ‘Curse of Christmas’ in the process, he would undoubtedly go down in Sunderland folk law as a hero. With two wins from his first two Tyne-Wear derbies, and a sharp rise up the table, Poyet is well on course to becoming an ‘Angel of The North’.