Crystal Palace-Sunderland Preview
Sunderland return to Premier League duty against Crystal Palace at the Stadium of Light Saturday to find their relegation rivals have stolen a march on them in their absence.
Having suffered a 3-1 defeat against Manchester City in the League Cup final and then elimination from the FA Cup after a 3-0 defeat at Hull City in their last two outings, Sunderland have not played a league game since Feb. 22.
In their period of inactivity, the Black Cats (6-6-14) have slipped back into the relegation places and now face the unenviable task of turning games in hand into points on the board as they play catch-up to the sides ahead of them.
Manager Gus Poyet insists his side can only focus on themselves, beginning with Saturday's showdown against Palace.
"I think it's natural that you look at the (other) results but at the end of the day it all depends on how many points we get," the Uruguayan told his club's official website. "I say that in the beginning when we have one point and when we have 29 games to get 39 points.
"At that time I thought 40 was needed - now seeing how many games it is going to be between teams at the bottom maybe it's going to be very difficult for seven teams to make 40. So maybe with a few less points you are going to make it, but for us it was always the same - I'm aiming for at least 39 so we need to win five games out of 12.
Palace (8-3-17) have won just one of their last five games and sustained a damaging 1-0 home loss to Southampton last time out.
Eagles boss Tony Pulis emphasized the need for maximum concentration after England international Jay Rodriguez applied the finishing touch to an incisive move to secure all three points for the Saints at Selhurst Park.
"The most important thing is that you stay really focused," Pulis told his club's official website in the wake of that loss. "The lads are very, very disappointed because they've worked very hard today and got nothing out of it, but that's the Premier League for you.
"They've got to understand there is quality in every team you play and you have to really be on your mettle - you've got to concentrate for 90 minutes to get those results."
Sunderland will be near full strength as both Wes Brown and Craig Gardner have recovered from knocks in time for the game. Goalkeeper Keiren Westwood remains sidelined with a shoulder injury.
Forward Marouane Chamakh, who has a hamstring problem, will be the only absentee for Palace who otherwise have a full squad to choose from.
Palace scored two late goals to beat Sunderland 3-1 at Selhurst Park in August. Danny Gabbidon put the Eagles in front after nine minutes before Steven Fletcher equalized just past the hour mark. Dwight Gayle scored from the penalty spot 11 minutes from time and Stuart O'Keefe sealed the victory with a goal deep into stoppage time.