Sunderland-Norwich City Preview
There are certain places in the Premier League table that mean more than others at season's end. First through fourth are the most obvious ones, with fifth also desirable since it almost always means the following season will include play in Europe.
But after that, the most important might be 17th - the place that ensures another season in the top flight. Norwich City currently occupy that slot and Sunderland are desperate to snatch it from them by season's end starting with a six-point belter in the matinée kickoff Saturday at Carrow Road.
This may be the most pivotal of the "£100 million matches" in the scramble to avoid relegation since survival guarantees teams that much money when the new television rights deal kicks in for next season. Norwich City (8-7-18) are on an island in 17th place - seven points adrift of Watford and Crystal Palace and four better than Sunderland (6-9-17).
The Black Cats have a match in hand, though, and while manager Sam Allardyce refuses to label this a must-win, he does firmly believe it's a match Sunderland can ill-afford to lose.
"As much as we want to win at Norwich, it's definitely more important that we don't lose because giving them three points would be worse; it's a don't lose game," he told Sunderland's official website after Sunday's 2-0 home defeat to league leaders Leicester City. "We're really going to have to hold our nerve."
The defeat stretched Sunderland's winless streak to six matches (0-4-2), and they've now gone scoreless for 226 minutes since Jermain Defoe's strike in the Tyne-Wear derby on March 20. The Black Cats are also winless in five matches (0-3-2) outside the Stadium of Light since a 4-2 victory at Swansea City on Jan. 13, further raising the stakes for a needed breakthrough to aid their hopes of survival.
"It's going to be a big game, there's no hiding the fact of what it means to both teams," midfielder Lee Cattermole told SAFSee. "We all know the facts of points and everything like that, we have to be focused and do the best we can.
"If we do what we know we can do and we believe what we can do, we won't have to worry about what anyone else does. We shouldn't have to look for other people to lose and not pick up points to do us favours."
The Canaries had a chance to distance themselves further from Sunderland and the drop last weekend, but lost 1-0 at Crystal Palace on Jason Puncheon's second-half goal. Despite having a penalty appeal waived off, Matt Jarvis felt his team deserved at least a point from the match, but he also has moved onto this match knowing its importance.
"Each game gets bigger and bigger, so it's massive," the winger told Norwich's official website. "That's what happens at this time of year. Being at home, we know if we're able to get the win it would give us a big jump. ... That starts with getting a good result Saturday."
Manager Alex Neil may have to make a change to his back line after Timm Klose was stretchered off right before halftime with a left knee injury. The Switzerland international and central defender has started Norwich City's last 10 matches after being acquired from VfL Wolfsburg in the January window.
A win or a draw by the Canaries would condemn Aston Villa to relegation prior to their kickoff against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Saturday.
Norwich City are seeking the double over Sunderland after a 3-1 victory in the reverse fixture Aug. 15. Russell Martin and Steven Whittaker scored first-half goals and Nathan Redmond added a third before a late consolation by Duncan Watmore.
The Canaries are unbeaten in their last five versus Sunderland (3-2-0) and have won three straight at home over the Black Cats.