Wigan Athletic, Birmingham City, and Middlesbrough have all had to deal with Sunderland’s dilemma. All three recently won cups (Wigan claiming last year’s FA Cup; Birmingham City winning the 2010 League Cup; while Boro snared the same honor in 2004). All three went down at the end of their seasons, leaving clubs to balance the glory of silverware against the pain of relegation from the Premier League.
Sunderland is the latest club to sit under this Sword of Damocles. While blessed with a spot in a Sunday’s Carling Cup final, the Black Cats also sit 18th in the Premier League, their push up the first division standings recently blunted by a 4-1 loss at Arsenal. Once again, relegation is a pressing concern, but if given the choice between success on Sunday and staying alive in the Premier League, Sunderland boss Gus Poyet would gladly raise the cup.
“The feeling of winning something is far beyond going down, spending two years in the Championship,” Poyet told The Guardian, the Uruguayan coach previously serving with Brighton & Hove Albion in the second division. Having replaced former Black Cats’ boss Paolo Di Canio earlier this season, Poyet has come to appreciate the plight of a supporter base whose club hasn’t claimed a major honor since 1973.
“You need to be here for 20 years and feel it like them, or not reach a final for 15 years, or not win one for more than 40,” Poyet said. “Only the people who have been here in the city supporting the club for so long really know. They have the feeling, not me. Me, I can say it but I can’t feel it. You need to listen to them and that’s why it’s an incredible opportunity.”
That opportunity is still seen as long-shot by most, with Manchester City set to lineup against Sunderland on Sunday at Wembley Stadium. Boasting one of the most talented teams in Europe, the Citizens are in fourth place in the Premier League, with their two games in hand on league-leading Chelsea making them most likely team to keep the Blues from a second title in four years. But they’re also a team Sunderland hasn’t lost to all season, with the Black Cats pulling an upset in City’s league visit to the Stadium of Light.
“It is always dangerous playing against any team,” Pellegrini said in the lead up to the game, downplaying the gap in quality the Premier League standings imply. “Sunderland have a lot of motivation to win this cup, the same as any team.
“I am sure we are the favourites but we cannot forget that Sunderland eliminated Chelsea and Manchester United – big teams.”
While nobody will forget Sunderland’s rout to Wembley (or their place in the FA Cup’s quarterfinals), equally unforgettable will be the power at Pellegrini’s disposal. Whereas the Black Cats may rely on U.S. international Jozy Altidore up top, Manchester City will likely have Sergio Agüero and Álvaro Negredo, a duo that has combined for 24 Premier League goals (Altidore: 1). Yaya Touré and Fernandinho form one of the best midfield duos in England, a pair that’s complemented by David Silva and Samir Nasri’s quality wide. Central defender Vincent Kompany and right back Pablo Zabaleta provide world-class options, while veterans Wes Brown and John O’Shea anchor the Sunderland back line. Against a team staving off a trip to the second division, City have an embarrassment of riches.
“The pressure is always exactly the same for all the teams,” Pellegrini said, speaking of expectations to deliver his first trophy with City. “The pressure is a personal pressure – for managers, players, all of us. I think we have the same pressure to win.”
All of which is coach-speak, of course. As last year’s FA Cup final showed, the pressure on City is much much greater than what’s put on an underdog. After the Citizens lost that final to the eventually relegated Wigan, Roberto Mancini was fired. While Pellegrini’s in no danger of meeting the same fate, his team is still expect to claim Sunday’s honors.