PAOLO Di Canio has told his Sunderland players relegation will be avoided if they win Monday’s “Champions League final” at Aston Villa.
The Italian believes taking three points from the Midlands would mean Premier League safety – even if the teams below them in theory could still catch them.
That is why he equated the game with European football’s biggest occasion.
Di Canio admitted today was almost as important as he will be looking for the teams around Sunderland to drop points.
Victory on Monday would establish a six-point gap between the Black Cats and Paul Lambert’s young side.
The Sunderland manager knows his team are within touching distance of retaining their Premeir League status.
Di Canio said: “If we win on Monday, we stay up.
“I told my players Monday is our Champions League final.
“That is what I have been saying ever since we joined up again at the start of the week.
“They have to think of this week as the most important week of the season. If we win on Monday we will stay up with three weeks to spare.
“It will probably not be mathematically certain, but it will be very close.
“When I came in, we were struggling, but I have told my players in the space of three game, they have the opportunity to have turned their season around.
“They have been capable of winning two games in a row, so if they win the next one they will have completely turned their season in the space of three weeks.
“It doesn’t mean that we have suddenly become a Champions League side, but it means with three games to go we can finish in a good position.” Di Canio would love to be in a position when with three matches to go – two of them at the Stadium of Light – the team could play without any real pressure.
He added: “It is step by step, but I told the players ‘think about Monday as a Champions League final, work as hard as you did in the last few weeks because there is a big opportunity to stay in this league with three games to go.
“Then we can enjoy the last three games and try to get the maximum points we can’.”
Di Canio lost to Aston Villa in the Capital One cup this season while at Swindon Town, a last-minute Christian Benteke goal winning the game 3-2 for the Premier League side.
He was later accused of making a gesture towards the Villa supporters suggesting he believed they would be relegated, something which has not been forgotten.
Not that this has any effect on the Sunderland manager.
He said: “I went to St James’ Park without any sort of worry – you can’t imagine I would be worried at Villa Park, with all respect.
“I played in front of 70,000 singing the worst Italian words at me and that only gave me energy.
“What happened was clear – it was to praise my fans because they were on top in my opinion.
“We lost that game, a game in which we should have been two or three goals in front. We dominated the game against them.
“I said thanks to my fans. I said to them, ‘You were on top.
“We lost on the field, but you were on top.’