Sunderland Club Focus – Campaign meanders to an end for the Black Cats

With four Premier League games of the season remaining, at Sunderland it is a case of looking to the long-term future without taking their eyes off the club’s short-term aims.

Manager Martin O’Neill, who returns to Villa Park for the first time since his controversial departure in August 2010, says he already knows which areas of the club he wants to strengthen ahead of next season although he needs to sit down with the club’s chairman and owner Ellis Short to thrash out exactly how much money he’ll have at his disposal.

O’Neill suggested that meeting would happen before the end of the season and, while he gave no hint as to which areas he thought needed strengthening nor any likely departures or arrivals, he was adamant that the club needed to keep its best players (surely a reference to Stephane Sessegnon and James McClean at whom some larger clubs have been make eyes) if it wanted to progress an issue upon which he and his chairman were united.

“I’m happy to say the owner agrees with me that we want to keep our very best players at the club because we are looking to build something here and move forward,” O’Neill was quoted by the Daily Mail as saying.

Before that, however, there’s the double objective of beating last season’s points total and finishing in the top half of the table, the first of those objectives will require at least a win and two draws from the last four games.

Following the disappointing goalless draw with Wolves last Saturday – a match which saw the home side trudge from the pitch with the jeers of their fans ringing in their ears, jeers O’Neill said he could understand – Sunderland face a trip to Villa Park. And the message from the dressing room is a clear and unified one: their focus is on accumulating the points they need to reach their targets.

Phil Bardsley, who grabbed the winner for Sunderland at Villa Park last season, said: “All the players think exactly the same – it’s our challenge to get as high as we can in the league.” The full back, who grabbed Sunderland’s winner at Villa Park last season added: “We played well against Man City and got a couple of clean sheets along the way in recent weeks, but three points would have been better. Hopefully, we can do that on Saturday,” the Northern Echo reported.

It was a message echoed by goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, who said: “We just need to focus on every game and we’ve got to try to get as many points as we can and see where we end up at the end of the season. You can’t sit back and relax with four games to go and say in three weeks’ time, we’ll be on holiday,” the Belgian told the Sunderland Echo.

Senior players John O’Shea and Lee Cattermole could both return on Saturday providing some leadership, and in Cattermole’s case, midfield drive, which was missing against Wolves, to the team.

See what the expert tipsters at OLBG are tipping on Aston Villa v Sunderland

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