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Championship Sunday focus: Sunderland

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Story so far…wow. What a roller-coaster of a season for Sunderland. Less than a month ago, Gus Poyet said his side would need a miracle to survive. On Wednesday, playing host to West Brom, the Black Cats made that miracle happen.

Sunderland’s season started miserably, and seemed destined to end the same way. Paolo Di Canio was shown the door after just five league games, only one of which, a 1-1 draw with Southampton, produced a point. When Poyet was appointed, Sunderland were still last, with just a point to their name. The first win came against Newcastle, which always produces bragging rights, but only two more came before January, leaving the Black Cats last in the table.

MORE: Head here for all things Championship Sunday

Cup competition, however, gave suffering Sunderland fans some comfort. In addition to their commendable FA Cup performance in which Sunderland made it to the quarterfinals, the Black Cats made it to Wembley, taking on, and eventually losing to, Manchester City after knocking out Chelsea and Manchester United.

But a Cup run, particularly one without a trophy lifted at the conclusion, is no compensation for slipping out of the Premier League. And when April began with Sunderland losing to Spurs, 5-1, it looked like that was exactly what would happen. They were seven points from safety and expecting a visit from Everton – who won thanks to yet another own goal from Wes Brown.

Then the miracle began. A 2-2 draw at the Etihad. A win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. 4-0 at home to Cardiff, then 1-0 over Manchester United – Sunderland’s first win at Old Trafford since 1968. Everything culminated in a relatively easy victory over West Brom, giving the Black Cats 13 points from their last five matches. But more importantly, giving them another season in the Premier League.

Who do they play and where can I watch it?
Along with over 40,000 Sunderland fans expected to be cheering their side on at the Stadium of Light, you, too, can tune in to see if the season ends on a high note, with a win over Swansea.  Watch the game at 10am ET on Esquire or live online via NBC Sports Live Extra.

Form guide:

April 12 vs Everton, L 0-1
April 16 at Manchester City, D 2-2
April 19 at Chelsea, W 1-2
April 27 vs. Cardiff City, W 4-0
May 3 at Manchester United, W 0-1
May 7 vs. West Bromwich Albion, W 2-0

What’s at stake?
Nothing! Yay for Sunderland! Seriously, those at the Stadium of Light deserve to enjoy this party. This is one roller-coaster everyone thought would end in a final drop of terror. The Black Cats’ rise should be celebrated.

When the final whistle blows…enjoy. Yes, this is getting repetitive. But some Sunderland fans are already questioning the state of the squad, the chaos of the season and whether Poyet is fit to remain in charge. While those questions deserve to be raised, they can wait until Monday, at least. Next week, the questions of how many on-loan players will remain, or what should happen with Jozy Altidore, or how to keep Seb Larsson or Jack Colback – next week, those questions will still be around, and there’s still a free month before the World Cup begins. So enjoy. 

“Overweight” Costa comes to Mourinho’s defense

Diego Costa, Chelsea FC
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Diego Costa says he and his Chelsea teammates are to blame for Chelsea’s horrid start to the 2015-16 Premier League season.

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Speaking Thursday, during a bit of downtime over the current international break (Costa was left out of Vicente del Bosque’s squad for Spain’s final two EURO 2016 qualifiers this week), Costa placed the majority of blame at the feet of the entire team, but went on to most harshly critique himself for coming into the season unfocused and “overweight.”

Costa, on his lack of fitness and form to begin the season — quotes from the Guardian:

“We know we’re not in the form we were supposed to be at the beginning of the season. We need to blame the players because we came back from holiday very confident, thinking we could go back into how it was last season, and then realized the team was already in a bad situation.

“I’m going to be very honest: maybe a few weeks ago, five or six weeks ago, I was not on top of my game. At least physically. We talk within the players and we know that, maybe at the beginning, we were not 100 percent as we were supposed to be when we got here. I got injured at the end of last season and then I went on holiday. Maybe I got out of my diet and, when I came back, I was not the way I was supposed to be. I was a little bit overweight. That affected my game. You can be selfish and blame it on the manager but I’m not going to do that. I’m responsible 100%, and so are the other guys.

Given that Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said on Thursday he doesn’t quite know what’s wrong with the defending Premier League champions, hearing someone — anyone — speak up and explain the club’s worst start to a season in 37 years will surely be a welcome sound to any Blues supporter’s ears.

[ MORE: Liverpool appoint Klopp as manager | Allardyce to Sunderland? ]

Costa, who is eligible to return from suspension next weekend when Aston Villa visit Stamford Bridge, has scored just one goal in league play this season (six appearances) after scoring 20 in 26 games last season.

Sam Allardyce to open talks with Sunderland

Sam Allardyce, West Ham United FC
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Now that Liverpool have selected and named their new manager, it appears Sunderland are finally ready to move forward with their own managerial search. (That’s clearly a joke, because it implies Liverpool and Sunderland ever duke it out for the same managerial candidate.)

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Anyway, the Black Cats will have to hire someone to replace the recently-departed Dick Advocaat at some point. We all knew that, despite the fact he’s probably earned a shot at that level, Bob Bradley was never really going to be considered for the job. With that in mind, if you’re not going to endear yourself to the entire United States of America with this hire, you might as well go for the best unemployed manager who’ll actually consider your approach.

That’s what Sunderland chairman Ellis Short appears to have done, as it was reported Thursday that despite an initial reluctance from Sam Allardyce — let’s be honest, he actually was holding out hope for the Liverpool job — the 60-year-old most recently in charge of West Ham United was willing and ready to enter into negotiations with the northeastern club.

One of the major sticking points during Sunderland’s courting of Allardyce is expected to be his demand for autonomy in the transfer market as well as a sizable transfer budget to sign his own players during the January window.

[ MORE: Advocaat: Sunderland squad too thin, chairman to blame ]

Allardyce seems like the no. 1 guy you’d like to bring in to steady a capsized ship — cough Sunderland cough — in any situation. Not only does he have a successful track record in the Premier League, but he’s the kind of no-nonsense leader a club like Sunderland so desperately needs as they find themselves in yet another relegation battle just eight games into the new season.

Short hopes to have Allardyce signed, sealed and delivered when the Premier League returns to action next weekend. In that event, Allardyce’s first game in charge of Sunderland would be a trip to West Bromwich Albion. His first home fixture? Home to Tyne-Wear derby rivals Newcastle United, a club whose boisterous fanbase still holds a great deal of disdain for Big Sam. Sometimes the football gods really are looking out for us.