The Stadium of Light will host a game that could have huge repercussions at both ends of the table Saturday when Sunderland play Everton.
Gus Poyet’s Sunderland (6-7-18) are bottom of the league, seven points from safety with just seven games remaining. The Black Cats have picked up just a single point since the first week of February, seeing them slip into a perilous position despite having games in hand over many of the teams above them.
"It is really, really difficult now but we still believe," said defender Carlos Cuellar, who is set to return from injury for the game. "We have too many games to give up on survival. We have teams down near us still to play and we have to take some hope from that. It is too early to say or think we are relegated. We keep fighting.
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"We must try and clear our minds of the last few weeks and get back to the performances at the start of the year when we were playing well. If we play the same as we did then, we can be okay."
Roberto Martinez’s Everton (18-9-5) impressed in a 3-0 win over Arsenal a week ago – a result that leaves them just one point behind the Gunners in the race for Champions League qualification. In the aftermath of the victory at Goodison Park, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger criticized the Toffees for their use of the loan system – with Romelu Lukaku (Chelsea) and Gareth Barry (Manchester City) playing big roles in the game – but Martinez was keen to dismiss Wenger’s comments ahead of the trip to Sunderland.
"To criticise us is ridiculous," said the Everton boss. "It would be the same as criticising us for developing a lot of young players, and giving them a chance, which is what we have done this season.
"The loan system is something that has to be part of the game. We have seven players ourselves out on loan and you need to develop young players. It’s just a question of finding a loan system that works. It has got its pros and cons – but from our point of view it works.
"And remember, no loan player would be a success unless you had a strong core group of players, which is what we have here. People forget that."
Sunderland have injury doubts over Steven Fletcher (ankle) and Kieren Westwood (shoulder), while Everton have concerns over the fitness of Leon Osman (eye) and Steven Pienaar (knee), and are expected to be without Phil Jagielka (hamstring), Lacina Traore (hamstring), Bryan Oviedo (broken leg), Darron Gibson (knee) and Arouna Kone (knee).
The last meeting between these teams was Everton’s only home defeat – with Sunderland running out 1-0 winners at Goodison Park on Boxing Day. The Toffees had goalkeeper Tim Howard sent off after 23 minutes, yet still dominated possession and managed 25 attempts on goal.
That result made it back-to-back league wins for Sunderland over Everton following a run of 15 straight matches without victory against the Merseyside club.