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Sunderland limping towards Premier League finish line
THEIR sides might be in very different positions in terms of the Premier League table, but after Saturday's soporific stalemate, supporters of Sunderland and Wolves surely share one thing in common. For very different reasons, both sets of fans could be forgiven for wanting the season to end.
In the case of Wolves, the desire stems from damage limitation. The Premier League's basement club are still to record a victory under caretaker manager Terry Connor and have imploded since former Sunderland boss Mick McCarthy was dismissed in February. Eight points adrift of safety, they could be relegated when they take on Manchester City this weekend.
Sunderland have no such worries, and the extent of the club's revival since Martin O'Neill watched from the Molineux stands in December has been remarkable. Yet with four games to go, there is a danger of a hugely successful season finishing with something of a bitter taste.
Since losing their FA Cup quarter-final replay with Everton, the Black Cats have failed to win in four successive matches.
A 3-3 draw with Manchester City was commendable, but a thumping 4-0 league defeat to Everton has now sandwiched two desultory goalless draws with Tottenham and Wolves.
Sunderland are limping towards the finishing line, and while that should not detract too much from everything that has gone before, the sheen is nevertheless being removed from the achievements of the last four months.
“I don't want to see the end of the season,” countered O'Neill, who will pit his side against Aston Villa, Bolton and Fulham before they entertain Manchester United on the final day of the season. “This performance would suggest that was the case, but I don't really want to believe that's the case and I genuinely don't.
“We were off the mark, but we have to keep giving the players occasional reminders during the week. I know players are always fighting for places, but here there are one or two positions where they could really cement a place for next season, or the opposite might happen. That is worth playing for.”
With significant changes anticipated when the transfer window reopens, this could have been a period where O'Neill shuffled his pack and seized the opportunity to assess a group of fringe players who have hardly figured during his reign.
The fact that it hasn't been suggests either that the Northern Irishman is an inherently conservative manager, and some of his previous decisions at Celtic and Aston Villa bear that out, or that he does not have much faith in the players on the margins of his squad.
The likes of Connor Wickham, who was not even on the substitutes' bench on Saturday, Ji Dong-won, who has not started a single game under O'Neill, and David Meyler, who boasts just one start all season, must be desperate for an opportunity to impress.
That they have not been given one does not augur well for their chances of avoiding a summer cull and establishing themselves in the first team next season.
“We stuck with the players (in January) and they were terrific, but it's time to move on,” said O'Neill. “I heard Harry Redknapp saying recently that if Tottenham want to improve they have to press on again and improve the squad. So if you drop that down a peg or two, then it definitely applies to us.
“We have players who haven't started much like young Ji and Connor, we have (Wayne) Bridge and (Sotirios) Kyrgiakos on loan and Elmo (Ahmed Elmohamady) is in Dubai getting a couple of games with Egypt.
“I will give them all some consideration over the next week or so. I sound like an old record saying the same things, but sometimes you have to deserve your chance.”
The unspoken implication is that at least some of Sunderland's fringe players don't, and it will be interesting to see what side lines up at Aston Villa this weekend given the complete lack of spark that was apparent against Wolves.
Sunderland created next to nothing all game, with a central-midfield pairing of Jack Colback and Craig Gardner failing to provide anything in the way of creativity. James McClean struggled to throw off the shackles of Wolves midfielder Kevin Foley, who was clearly instructed to stick as close to him as possible, and Stephane Sessegnon suffered one of those frustrating afternoons when the ball rarely strayed into his orbit.
As a result, Wayne Hennessey was barely tested as he secured Wolves' first clean sheet since the third game of the season. He tipped Sessegnon's first-half shot around the post, but was effectively a spectator until he kept out McClean's back-post header midway through the second half.
Simon Mignolet had not really been involved either at that stage, but the Sunderland goalkeeper produced a smart stop with nine minutes left to keep out Steven Fletcher's close-range header.
Sunderland then wasted the best chance of the afternoon in the final minute, with Seb Larsson shooting over despite being unmarked eight yards out.
“We didn't do enough to win the game,” admitted O'Neill. “We did it for little spells, but we should be able to do more.”