I emphasise the ‘could’ in the title, because in all honesty it’s very unlikely. Sunderland were relegation candidates a few weeks ago. How can they finish in the top four?
Well they are eighth in the league – yes, that high – and they do have a better goal difference than Arsenal, Liverpool and Newcastle, so perhaps it isn’t as far-fetched as you think…
The first reason they might do it is the fact that no-one else seems to want to make it their own. Chelsea sit in fourth at the moment with a three-point lead over fifth place Newcastle, but neither Chelsea, Arsenal nor Liverpool are doing themselves any favours this season. Chelsea have drawn five out of the last eight, and losing one. That is 11 points from 24 available against the like of Norwich, Wigan and Fulham – teams Chelsea would expect to beat usually. Liverpool and Arsenal haven’t faired much better. Arsenal, after finding some form, have only won one in their last six (before the Blackburn game) and Liverpool have drawn seven out 11 home games this season.
Sunderland, meanwhile, have won 19 points from 27 available since Martin O’Neill took charge. They have raced up the league and O’Neill seems to have found a way to get their talented squad playing well, something previous boos Steve Bruce couldn’t manage. Spearheaded by the skilful Stephane Sessegnon, Sunderland have found an attacking freedom, whilst remaining responsible at the back – a recipe for success at any level. If (a big if) they can keep their form going for the remainder of the season, they could easily find themselves in the shake up for the last Champions League place.
Their squad is another reason why they might be in with a chance. It is very, very good. Perhaps, player for player, they can’t match Chelsea, but I think Sunderland’s overall squad could stand-up against Liverpool, Newcastle and maybe even Arsenal with their injuries.
They have three good goalkeepers for a start, not something Arsenal, Chelsea or Liverpool could say (admittedly those three have better first-choice ‘keepers). The Black Cats also have a host of accomplished defenders, with a lot of experience.
The partnership struck-up between Wes Brown and John O’Shea in central defence has been very good, and they have able back-up with the likes of Michael Turner. The midfield is where Sunderland have really found a winning formula. They have hungry youngsters in the form of James McClean and Jack Colback, blended with the subtle talent of David Vaughan and Seb Larsson. Add to this the bite of Lee Cattermole and you have a formidable set-up.
The other teams in the race for fourth also have talented midfield areas, but Chelsea are not showing it and bar Gerrard, Liverpool’s midfield is weaker. Up front Sunderland can match anyone. Yes, Arsenal have Robin Van Persie and Liverpool have Suarez, but Sunderland have a four good attackers. There is Nicklas Bendtner, who despite a lack of composure..and modesty, does have some talent.
They have also got Connor Wickham, who is still only 18, and will no doubt become a very good player.
Frazier Campbell is back in contention after a horrific run of injuries and the 24-year-old showed what he is still capable of against Norwich. Then there is the jewel in Sunderland’s crown – Sessegnon. He has grown into his role as Sunderland’s star man and is now relishing it. The Benin international is very quick and skilful, and has even shown he has an eye for goal. If Sunderland were to make to make the top four, Sessegnon would be a big reason why.
Sunderland’s fixture list is slightly favourable to those of the other fourth place contenders as well. They have a couple of tough trips to Manchester, but apart from that they would expect to be able to continue their good form. Sunderland will also welcome Arsenal and Liverpool to The Stadium of Light.
A win in these fixtures would give the team belief that they could finish in the top four, not to mention the three points and damage it could do to their opponents. If Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea continue their indifferent form, Sunderland could well be in with a shout of fourth place come May.
As I said, the notion that Sunderland could finish in the top four is seemingly highly unlikely, but think about it for a second, and maybe it isn’t?
After all, this has been the most unpredictable season for years – anything can happen!
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