Sunderland play host to Everton this weekend with both sides in need of three points that could define their seasons for very different reasons.
The Black Cats finally kickstarted their campaign last weekend – although it has taken until April and a change of manager for that to happen – but it couldn’t have been done at a better time or place.
Under the leadership of Paolo Di Canio for only the second time, Sunderland recorded their first win at St. James’ Park, home of local rivals Newcastle United, for 12 years with a resounding 3-0 victory and in doing so ended a dreadful run of nine games without a win and moved themselves three points clear of 18th-placed Wigan Athletic.
The second and decisive goal last weekend came from Adam Johnson, a player who has failed to live up to expectations after arriving from Manchester City last summer.
The one-time England winger – a Newcastle fan as a boy – had only scored four times in 29 games and has consistently left the pitch having made no positive impact, but on Sunday he left an indelible mark on the match and possibly his side’s season.
Johnson’s stunning left-footed strike from 25 yards out flew past Rob Elliot into the top corner of the Newcastle net, knocking the wind out of the Magpies’ sails and hushing the home crowd.
Sunderland fans will be hoping this is the start of brighter things to come from Johnson and perhaps the arrival of the enigmatic Di Canio can inspire the occasionally brilliant wide man to produce on a more regular basis.
His next opportunity to produce a similarly threatening display arrives on Saturday afternoon against Everton at the Stadium of Light, a game for which they are seen as underdogs at 23/10, with the visitors priced at 23/20 in bwin’s 3-way betting market.
The Toffees themselves are reaching a defining moment as a result of enjoying their strongest campaign since 2004/05 and they still have ambitions of repeating their fourth-placed finish from that season.
But if Everton are to reach the Champions League places then three points on Wearside is a must after they failed to beat Arsenal in midweek.
The goalless draw with the Gunners has left David Moyes’ side four points adrift of Arsenal and five behind third-placed Chelsea, who also have a game in hand.
So the task is not an easy one for Everton, but all they can do is concentrate on their fixtures and they are certainly the form side of the two this weekend, having not lost in the league since February 23rd.
This run has been, in no small part, thanks to four clean sheets in their past five games, three of which have led to victories and they are 5/2 to win to nil again in the north-east.
The odds do not bode well for Sunderland, but if you want to avoid betting against them, then follow me in backing more goals to be scored in the match in the first half than the second half at 9/5.
After all, both teams have scored more goals prior to the interval than after it this season: 20 of Sunderland’s 37 goals have arrived before half-time, while the same is true of 29 of Everton’s 51 strikes.
Giving further credence to the theory is the fact that both teams have been involved in 21 games where under 1.5 goals have been scored in the final 45 minutes, with only Stoke City and Norwich City able to surpass that total.
Just four of Sunderland’s 16 games at the Stadium of Light this term have featured two or more second-half goals – the lowest proportion in the division – so that 9/5 looks way too big to me. Get on it now.