Reality sets in for Di Canio as Sunderland stutter in survival race

The Italian galvanised his team to back-to-back victories shortly after taking the job at the Stadium of Light but their shortcomings have been exposed since that run was ended
By Oliver Platt

Now the spotlight falls on Paolo Di Canio for footballing reasons. It has been only 38 days since the Italian was appointed at the Stadium of Light but it feels like much longer, such is the quantity and contrast of the highs and lows he has experienced in that short period.

For better or for worse, the Premier League is a place where winning often trumps morals and by the time Sunderland had comprehensively beaten Newcastle, their biggest rivals, before claiming another vital three points against Everton, those complaining of Di Canio's suitability for the job given his fascist sympathies had become a barely audible minority.

Then the Black Cats were thrashed 6-1 by Aston Villa. Now, following their 1-1 draw with Stoke, the Di Canio narrative is perhaps at its most sensible, free from the hysteria that surrounded both his appointment (though those Sunderland fans harbouring genuine concerns regarding his political views should not, of course, be ignored) and the seemingly dramatic transformation of a team that had underperformed under Martin O'Neill.

Sunderland's results under Di Canio
Apr 7
1-2 v Chelsea
Apr 14
3-0 v Newcastle
Apr 20
1-0 v Everton
Apr 29
1-6 v Aston Villa
May 6
1-1 v Stoke
First the villain, then the messiah; now an inexperienced manager with a very difficult job to do.

Put quite simply, Sunderland must beat Southampton to secure their top-flight safety for certain. If Wigan are able to see off Swansea - who are without a victory in seven matches - on Tuesday evening, only goal difference will separate the four clubs - the Latics, Sunderland, Newcastle and Norwich - most at risk of suffering the fate already endured by QPR and Reading.

Sunderland visit Tottenham, who are likely to be desperately fighting for a top-four berth, on the final day of the season and given the difficulty of that fixture Di Canio is under no illusions as to the magnitude of the task that awaits them on home turf against the Saints on Sunday.

"It's a Champions League final for us," he told Sky Sports. "We know we have two games to go but this game at home will be really, really crucial for our destiny. It's obvious we have to do everything to win this game because I presume, but you never know, that with 41 points, with many other teams around us, we can stay up."

Having come from behind with 10 men following the sending off of Craig Gardner for a horrific challenge on Charlie Adam, Sunderland will consider their draw against Stoke a point gained, and justifiably so. Before kick-off, though, this looked very much a winnable fixture and while their perseverance is to be praised, Sunderland's shortcomings are very clear.

13/2 Sunderland are 13/2 with Paddy Power to be relegated
They do not score enough goals; only QPR have scored less at home, and the three-match ban that has ended Stephane Sessegnon's season will not help matters at all. The derby triumph at St James' Park was the first game in which Sunderland have scored more than one goal and won since January 19. Adam Johnson has not taken flight as hoped and James McClean has failed to reproduce the form of his debut season in English football. Stephen Fletcher is injured and Danny Graham has struggled to fill the void.

Di Canio's powers of motivation undoubtedly helped the Black Cats to take advantage of a beleaguered Newcastle but the honeymoon period he had surely planned to take advantage of ended abruptly. There was a sense Sunderland turned the corner too quickly, that the players began to believe the hype; they were quickly brought back down to earth by Paul Lambert's resurgent young Villans.

That result burst the Di Canio bubble and for that reason Sunderland will need to well and truly work for their survival rather than riding the crest of their new manager's wave. Gardner's red card is another blow an already limited squad could ill-afford. "It's obvious we have to stop what we did last week and this week in terms of red and yellow cards otherwise it's going to put us in trouble," Di Canio said.

"We don't need to help the others, we have to help ourselves. I'm not the sort of manager that will cry or make an excuse because now the job is done, Stephane is out, Craig will be out and I only want to concentrate on the players that I can select to play. I hope we are done making mistakes like that because I love the passion, I love the heart but if we want to improve we have to handle our aggression."

The Italian will ensure his team is galvanised for their final, vital home match of the season but Mauricio Pochettino's side, themselves seeking a point or three to secure their own survival, will no longer fear the Di Canio effect. Sunderland's fate remains in their own hands but the new Black Cats boss will need to call upon more than a considerable armoury of psychological tricks to finish the job.

Follow Oliver Platt on