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Paolo di Canio, Sunderland play Chelsea in Premier League

Photo: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Paolo di Canio, a once-proclaimed fascist, was named Sunderland manager earlier this week.

Paolo Di Canio has endured a trying first week as Sunderland manager off the pitch and it won't get any easier on it Sunday when his relegation-haunted team takes on European champion Chelsea in his opening game in charge.

Since being appointed as Martin O'Neill's replacement on Sunday, the combustible Italian has spent more time fielding questions about his political beliefs than about how he intends to steer Sunderland to Premier League safety.

While it will be a relief for Di Canio to finally get down to action, there could be more trouble around the corner as a loss at Stamford Bridge could see Sunderland slip into the bottom three.

It is a big step up for Di Canio, who spent eight seasons in the Premier League as a player but has never coached in England's - or any other country's - top division.

"Chelsea at Stamford Bridge - what can you say?'' said Di Canio, whose previous links to fascism have caused a media storm in England this week. "I can't wait for it and I expect the same desire and determination from my players to make sure they do a good job.

"I'm not worried about the big stage. We will do everything straight away to try and get a big result at Chelsea and then in the other games.''

Sunderland is winless in eight matches and just a point above the relegation zone, while Chelsea is desperate for victory in the league to cement its top-four place after wins over Manchester United in the FA Cup quarterfinals and Rubin Kazan in a Europa League quarterfinal first leg this week.

Di Canio's return to the Premier League, where he was a regular headline-grabber in spells with Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham and Charlton Athletic, could even overshadow Monday's Manchester derby between the top two.

With United 15 points clear and almost assured of winning the title, the build-up to the match has been more muted compared to 12 months ago, when City won an eagerly anticipated derby to go top with two matches remaining and eventually won the league.

United's march to the title gathered further pace with a 1-0 win at Sunderland last weekend, a result that cost O'Neill his job and left the northeast team battling for survival.

"A new manager has come in, a fantastic player he was as well. He's certainly going to have them up for it,'' Chelsea captain John Terry said. "He'll show passion - I've read a few things: He's told them, `Tell your wives and your families it's going to be a lot of long days and hard work.'''

The fight against relegation looks to have claimed two victims - Reading and Queens Park Rangers are both seven points adrift with seven matches left - and there are as many as eight teams battling to avoid becoming the third team to go down. West Ham, in 11th place, is six points clear of third-bottom Aston Villa and not considered safe.

Meanwhile, the race for the remaining two Champions League qualification places behind the Manchester clubs took a new twist when Tottenham winger Gareth Bale was carried off on a stretcher during Thursday's Europa League match against Basel with a right ankle injury, which will undergo a scan on Friday.

Spurs are third and have been heavily reliant on Bale, who has scored 17 league goals. So his absence from Sunday's match against Everton, who is six points behind in sixth place, and perhaps a few more games is a devastating blow to Tottenham.

"Gareth will definitely play again this season. We will know better (on Friday) but I'm pretty confident,'' Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas said after the Basel match. "It shouldn't be as bad as it looks because Gareth has torn that ligament before and there's nothing to tear now.''

Bale's injury will provide a major boost to Chelsea, which is two points behind Spurs in fourth and Arsenal, which is a further two points back ahead of a trip to West Bromwich Albion on Saturday.

Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott have returned to training for Arsenal after recent injuries but are unlikely to play at The Hawthorns.

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