Aston Villa have set themselves the goal of dragging Sunderland back into the relegation battle on Monday in the English Premier League.
Sunderland have won their past two matches under new manager Paolo di Canio and while the Italian claimed this week that the north-eastern club would effectively be safe with a win at Villa Park, defeat would see them dragged back into the mire.
Di Canio’s side are one of three Premier League teams six points ahead of Wigan (31 points), who occupy the highest position in the relegation zone, but Aston Villa (34 points) can draw level with Sunderland if they win.
Villa manager Paul Lambert has not downplayed the importance of the game as the Birmingham-based club fight for safety with three games to follow Monday’s fixture.
“We have to win,” Lambert said.
“The next four games are massive but we also know if we win on Monday then we pull Sunderland right back in there as well.
“There’s only three points in it and we’re at home.
“I’d rather be at home than going away, that’s for sure.
“They (Sunderland) are not (out of the relegation battle).
“There’s points to be won and points to be lost.”
Villa have won three and lost two of their past six matches, succumbing to Manchester United 3-0 last week as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side claimed the title.
Lambert’s preferred forward trio of Christian Benteke, Andreas Weimann and Gabriel Agbonlahor were back together against Manchester United after the latter missed Villa’s 1-1 draw with Fulham on April 13 with a groin injury.
Benteke, Weimann and Agbonlahor have been crucial to Villa’s decent form in the past six matches, playing a role in eight of their team’s 10 goals in that period, regularly setting each other up to score.
But Villa will have to work hard to breach Sunderland’s goal on Monday as Di Canio has tightened their defence, which has seen them claim clean sheets in their wins over Newcastle United and Everton in the past fortnight.
Di Canio will have Craig Gardner available again after his suspension, while Phil Bardsley is in doubt due to an ankle problem.