Craig Gardner has been told he could be the man to keep Sunderland in the Premier League.
The 27-year-old midfielder has not started a top-flight game since December 4, and may well find himself back on the bench for Saturday’s trip to Arsenal.
But after Gardner’s goal set up an FA Cup quarter-final at the winners of tonight’s tie between Brighton and Hove Albion and Hull City, coach Gustavo Poyet stressed his fringe players could have a crucial role in the Black Cats’ survival hopes.
“We need to look at so many things and we will need our group, every single one,” said the Uruguayan, who made nine changes in Saturday’s 1-0 win over Southampton.
“There is going to be one game this season when we are going to make a decision and that might be (Emanuele) Giaccherini, Andrea (Dossena), or Craig Gardner and that player could be the key to us staying up. On Saturday they had good games and showed me they’re ready.
“Craig gives me an option to do different things depending on the system we are playing and who is in midfield. From my midfielders, he’s the player that can get in the box the most and have those kind of shots. He is putting himself in the frame and he’s going to be important for us.
“When you select a team and you need to win a game you have different players who can become important, that’s great. Him, Giaccherini, too, Lee Cattermole had an excellent game and I can’t believe he wasn’t man of the match. (Santiago) Vergini was comfortable, marking, playing and passing the ball. Fabio (Borini) enjoyed his first game up front for a while.
“So there are positives. Sometimes these games bring doubts and they kill you, but it has given me plenty of options.”
Poyet experimented with a diamond formation giving Gardner more scope to get forward. He responded with his third goal this season – and first under Poyet.
West Bromwich Albion were interested in signing Gardner, whose contract will be allowed to run down at the end of the season, in January.
“He can always score a goal,” commented Poyet. “He was one of the first players I talked to when I came here after seeing him training for a few days, I knew him of course already. I said to him, ‘We need to find a way to put you close to the edge of the box with the ball at your feet, just to have a shot. We need as a team to get you three or four shots a game and then you will score a goal.’
“He’s got a shot that’s difficult to stop when he hits the target.
“When we took the penalties (at Manchester United in the League Cup semi-final) I said ‘Craig, first one, goal, I will put a million pounds on it’. I’m pleased I didn’t because he missed, but he has a special shot and he is a great option, especially when you are missing goals and a goal can change your season.”
Sunderland have won eight out of nine cup games this season, compared to six wins in 25 Premier League matches.
“I cannot explain it,” said Poyet (pictured below). “It’s scary why we win every cup game and in the league we don’t.
“Sometimes there is a mentality where we are still thinking there is time in the league, but there is not. In the cup, you play a game and although you can have a replay, you play as if it is it, that it’s going to finish today.
“That craziness of ‘Today, it can finish’ – maybe we have to play the next home game in the league like that, otherwise we can go down. We need to make the players crazy and whatever happens happens.
“Maybe we will put two strikers up there and play differently.”
Sunderland’s Premier League game at Liverpool will now be rescheduled, plus games against West Brom and Manchester City.