Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio has told his players that Monday night’s trip to Aston Villa “is a Champions Leagu
The Stadium of Light outfit won two games in a row for the first time in 2013 last week, backing up a derby win over Newcastle United with a 1-0 home success against Everton.
That form has seen Sunderland move to 37 points, six above the relegation zone, and a win against fellow strugglers Aston Villa would all but secure their survival in the Premier League.
With 17th-placed Villa just three points below them, a defeat could suck Sunderland back into the relegation dog fight and Di Canio has stressed the importance of the match to the playing group.
“If we win Monday, we stay up. I’ve told my players, Monday is a Champions League final,” Di Canio said.
“This week is the most important week of the season because if we win Monday, we stay up with three games in advance.
“Probably not mathematically, but we stay up. It doesn’t mean we’ll become a Champions League side, but it means with three games to go, we can finish in a good position.
“If they work as hard as they have done in the last few weeks, there is an enormous opportunity to enjoy the last three games and get the maximum points they can.”
“I told my players, ‘When I came in here, we were nearly strangled – you have turned the season in three games here. You did that, you were capable of winning two in a row’.
“If we win the next one, in three weeks, you have turned completely the season.”
Di Canio said he was not even thinking about next season yet, with survival the sole ambition at Sunderland for the moment.
The Sunderland boss also confirmed that striker Connor Wickham was not fully fit despite responding well to treatment on his injured calf.
Wickham has missed the last two games but Di Canio said he was “improving with his injury, but still out” for the club’s trip to Villa.