Sunderland and Reading face a critical juncture in their seasons when the relegation rivals play at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday.
With a 3-1 defeat at home to Chelsea on Saturday, the Black Cats joined Reading in the drop zone for the first time during Martin O’Neill’s 12-month tenure at Sunderland.
There was an element of poor luck about the 3-1 loss but poor luck tends to follow you around when you’re at the wrong end of the table.
Reading meanwhile, were handed another narrow defeat, at Southampton, and can ill-afford another loss to a relegation rival with the side already staring at a six-point gap to safety.
Top scorer Steven Fletcher remains O’Neill’s primary concern having missed the Chelsea game with a lingering ankle injury.
The former Wolverhampton front man has scored six goals since his 10-million pound move in the off-season, and tellingly was the only Sunderland player to get on the score sheet in the Premier League until Adam Johnson’s strike against Everton on November 11.
A win for Sunderland would potentially lift them out of the mire but that could depend greatly on Fletcher’s availability given Sunderland’s troublesome lack of goals – 14 in 15 games.
O’Neill may have to do without defender John O’Shea as well after he picked up a calf problem against Chelsea to add to absent captain Lee Cattermole.
The Sunderland boss faced a similar predicament last season but managed to guide Sunderland to safety on the back of an impressive run in February, but the Northern Irishman knows full well his side are right in the thick of a desperate fight.
“It is exactly this now; every game is a fight for us,” he said after the Chelsea defeat.
“And when we have a foothold in games, we need to try and make it count. I think that’s the major point.”
Reading are the only side above QPR, who set a Premier League record of 16 winless games to start the season on Saturday, and may be fighting a losing battle with the depth of talent in Brian McDermott’s squad.
Much of last season’s Championship-winning squad has been retained and despite some impressive performances, Reading have fallen agonisingly short in matches with worrying regularity.
Jimmy Kebe could be in line for a recall for the Royals following a groin injury ahead of a heavy load of fixtures for both sides.
The original August fixture was rearranged due to a waterlogged pitch and means both sides will be faced with five matches in the next 18 days during the festive period.
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