Equal parts unstoppable in cup play and maddeningly inconsistent in league play, Sunderland continue their fight for survival in the top flight Wednesday when they host Stoke City at the Stadium of Light.
Still digging themselves out of the hole created by their disastrous start under previous manager Paolo di Canio, the Black Cats (4-6-12) are 19th in the table on 18 points, ahead of only Cardiff City on goal differential but only one point behind Fulham for safety. Sunderland's league struggles continue to be all the more befuddling since they won five matches to progress to March's League Cup final versus Manchester City and advanced to the round of the 16 in the FA Cup this past weekend with their second victory in this tournament - 1-0 at home Saturday over upstart and fifth-tier Kidderminster Harriers of the Conference Premier League on Charalampos Mavrias' goal in the fifth minute.
Di Canio recently hit out at the team again with sharp criticism of team captain John O'Shea, prompting management to release a statement Monday that in part read, "Having reached a cup final for the first time in 22 years, whilst also enjoying a run of only one loss in 12 games, we want to focus on what is a positive time for the football club and we would hope it is possible to draw a line under this matter quickly and that there will be n repetition."
Gus Poyet will try to keep his charges focused on the pitch and off the broadsheets as they try to claim a point for the seventh time in eight league matches (2-4-1). The Black Cats clawed to a 2-2 draw at home versus Southampton on Jan. 18 as Adam Johnson set up Fabio Borini's first-half goal before netting the equaliser in the 71st minute.
Sunderland have scored eight goals in their last four matches after totaling 13 in their first 18, lending evidence Poyet's pragmatic style is providing the results needed to stay in the Premier League.
"If you asked me what is important now, it's just to win game and to feel that we can be strong at home," Poyet told the team's official website after Saturday's win in which he overhauled almost the entire starting XI from their midweek League Cup shootout win at Manchester United. "(There were) things that were missing... it was tough because that last ball is the one that you need to manage with quality, but I would say it's difficult to analyse this game."
Stoke City (5-7-10) were not as fortunate in their FA Cup endevaours over the weekend, losing 1-0 at Chelsea on Sunday in their fourth-round tie. The Potters could not overcome Oscar's free kick in the 27th minute as they suffered their third consecutive defeat across all competitions.
If there was one positive manager Mark Hughes could take from the loss at Stamford Bridge, it was the quality return of first-choice goalkeeper Asmir Begovic. While Begovic was wrong-footed on Oscar's strike, the Bosnian international did give the Potters a chance for a late equaliser with two quality saves late.
Begovic is in line to make his first league start since Dec. 21, and it could not have come at a better time since the Potters are also in the scrap to avoid relegation with only 22 points - four clear of the bottom three. Backups Jack Butland and Thomas Sorensen allowed 15 goals on the 34 shots that were on target in the five league matches Begovic missed, and neither posted a clean sheet for the Potters.
The Bosnian had one of his six shutouts in the reverse fixture Nov. 23, a 2-0 victory for Stoke City as Steven Nzonzi assisted on Charlie Adam's goal in the 30th minute and secured the three points with a goal nine minutes from time.