Sunderland face nemesis Southampton in fight for Premier League survival
Relegation-haunted Sunderland face a battle to maintain their status in the English Premier League. The visitors to the Stadium of Light are high-flying Southampton who boast the meanest defence in the division.
Down on the English south coast towards the end of the 19th century, a group of God-fearing local lads set up a football team. Saint Mary's Church in Southampton hardly seemed the venue to be discussing who'd play through the middle or whether there was enough width in the squad.
But nevertheless, Saint Mary's Church of England Young Men's Association girded up their loins and went out to battle on the local common.
Within a decade, the Church XI had become a tad more serious. In 1894, the name changed to Southampton Saint Mary's when the side joined the Southern League. After winning that title in 1897 - no doubt with a little divine intervention - the club became a limited company and was renamed Southampton Football Club. The team's nickname of The Saints was hardly infra dig.
On 2 May 2015, light years away from the team's genesis, Sunderland's players will face their demons when they take on The Saints at the Stadium of Light.
Back in October at Saint Mary's Stadium, Southampton thrashed Sunderland 8-0.
The then Sunderland boss Gus Poyet said he was left in shock by the result.
"Without a doubt, it's the most embarrassing time I've had on a football pitch," Poyet said. "I feel sorry for all the supporters. We've been creating a good rapport between the team and the supporters. It's a long trip between Sunderland and Southampton. They deserve better. I can't explain what happened."
The Uruguayan was eventually shown the door in March after Sunderland went down 4-0 at home to Aston Villa.
At least he refused to hide. “I am responsible when things go wrong," said the former Chelsea midfielder. "When you are responsible you have to take it.”
Poyet has been replaced by the veteran coach Dick Advocaat. The 67-year-old has twice managed the Netherlands national squad as well as clubs such as PSV Eindhoven, Zenit Saint Petersburg and Rangers.
Sunderland midfielder Seb Larsson says his team must beat Southampton if they are to survive the drop this season.
But that will be easier said than done. Southampton have been a revelation this season in England.
The departure last May of manager Mauricio Pochettino for Tottenham Hotspur was followed by the sale of five players, including captain Adam Lallana.
Rickie Lambert, Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren and Calum Chambers were also on that list. It brought in 125 million euros and also howls of derision for such a sell-off.
Southampton, under Pochettino, had achieved a club best eighth place in the Premier League. He was succeeded by the Dutchman Ronald Koeman who drafted in the likes of Graziano Pelle, Dusan Tadic, Ryan Bertrand, Sadio Mane, Shane Long, Florin Gardos and Fraser Forster.
When Southampton chairman Ralph Krueger told local media at the start of the 2014-2015 season that the club was in a better position following the deals, many accepted it as standard boardroom bluff.
Perhaps not. As the season winds up, Southampton lie seventh in the Premier League table. Eighth-placed Swansea City are seven points behind them. Only a very bizarre implosion will prevent them from eclipsing the achievements of the last campaign.
The game at Sunderland will test whether Southampton have the desire and resolve to play in next season's Europa League. With its gruelling routine of Thursday night matches followed by Sunday afternoon games, the competition is often regarded as a poisoned chalice.
Should Southampton win, they'll climb into sixth above Tottenham Hotspur who host Manchester City on 3 May.
Martin McFadden, the editor of the Sunderland fans' magazine A Love Supreme, told RFI that the Wearsiders had to make the most of their home advantage.
"All season Sunderland have been hovering above the relegation area, flirting with it. Now they've really been sucked into the battle," he said.
Sunderland, who have played a game less than Leicester City, have been drawn into the relegation melee following Leicester City's four consecutive victories. That sequence catapulted them out of the drop zone but it was ended on Wednesday night by Chelsea.
The Londoners came from behind to win 3-1 at the King Power Stadium to go 13 points clear of second-placed Manchester City with four games remaining.
Arsenal, who are third, are the only team who can catch Chelsea and their pursuit will be academic should Chelsea beat Crystal Palace at Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon.
Still, hope springs eternal. And Sunderland have to grasp that sentiment. Chelsea's victory over Leicester City was manna from heaven.
"Leicester are one point above us at the moment and in a few weeks time we play them," said McFadden. "We've got Leicester City at home. That's going to be one of the biggest games of the season. It will probably decide who goes down."
Sunderland have an inferior goal difference to Leicester City who will be hoping to recover from that midweek defeat against Chelsea by claiming all three points against Newcastle United who have lost their last seven Premier League games.
If the result goes against Sunderland on Saturday afternoon, it's unlikely that there'll be many requests in the city's churches on Sunday morning for "When the Saints go Marching In".
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