MARTIN O’Neill has ordered his Sunderland players to “just go out and play” against under-pressure Chelsea tomorrow.
Out of the European Cup and without a win in seven Premier League games, Chelsea travel to the Stadium of Light in poor form. But the Black Cats have only won once in the league there since March and do not yet know if top scorer Steven Fletcher will recover from an ankle injury in time.
With Sunderland struggling, the tension on the terraces is audible. They also looked uptight at Carrow Road last Sunday, and it took a 2-0 deficit before they started to play with freedom. O’Neill (pictured left) is anxious that is not repeated tomorrow. “We need to go with real tempo,” he said. “We were tentative and somewhat nervous (at Norwich City) but my view is they shouldn’t be – throw off the shackles and go out and play. I also accept that’s easier said than done.
“Speaking to a few people during the course of the week – some players, some managers I just happened to come across – when you’re on a little run and you win a game or two, you feel as if you can beat anybody.
“The reverse is absolutely true. Suddenly you lose a game or two and you want to know where the
next point is coming from. To remove that anxiety, just go out and play as we did in the second half against Norwich.”
Home form was a major problem in 2011, until O’Neill’s December arrival prompted a four-month upturn at the Stadium of Light. If the statistics about playing on Wearside make for uncomfortable reading, O’Neill is not dwelling on them.
“I’m not overly-concerned about that,” he insisted. “Our supporters are no different to a lot of supporters up and down the country.
“They want the team to do well, they get frustrated by some things that happen on the pitch and they have to carry that frustration. That happens.
“There’s not a ground in the country that doesn’t suffer from that, so we just have to go and play.
“The crowd will turn up on Saturday knowing Chelsea are a very decent side. I feel as if they want to get right behind us but we have to do something as well to propagate that.”
Six-goal Fletcher injured his ankle at Norwich, and while O’Neill said the early diagnosis is encouraging, firm timescales are hard to come by.
“He’s gone for some scans and there’s been a bit of good news in the sense that the specialist is relatively pleased with the way things are going,” he revealed. “It’s just taking some time. We’re not sure yet. We would probably have a better idea on Friday afternoon about availability for either of these games (against Chelsea, or at home to Reading on Tuesday).”
Having scored just one goal in interim manager Rafael Benitez’s first three games, they scored six in his fourth. The win over Nordsjælland was not enough to keep them in the European Cup and O’Neill, who was in the Stamford Bridge crowd, does not expect it to have a major bearing at the weekend.
“It was a strange sort of old game but Chelsea have the capabilities of scoring goals, you can see that in their line-up,” he commented.
“I don’t think Wednesday will have much effect on them. They might be concerned with having let points slip in the league at times when they took the lead in the game and maybe could have been out of sight by half-time.
“They’re heading off now to the World Club Championship in Japan (after Saturday’s game) and they have that to contend with that.
“But wanting to get back into the Champions League and finish in the top four would be a priority for them.
“So I assume their approach would be very much like it has been for the last seven or eight games.”