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O'Neill hoping FA Cup run sparks Premier League improvement
MARTIN O'Neill is hoping a prolonged FA Cup run will be the catalyst for a sustained improvement in Sunderland's league form in the second half of the season.
The Black Cats take on Bolton in a third-round replay at the Stadium of Light tonight, with the winners due to entertain Everton in the fourth round a week on Saturday.
Last year, Sunderland's progress to the FA Cup quarter-finals went hand in hand with an impressive spring showing that saw the club win seven of their first 12 league matches following the turn of the year.
While some Premier League managers might regard the FA Cup as an unwanted distraction from the more important business of remaining in the top-flight, O'Neill is determined to mark the 40th anniversary of Sunderland's last cup success with another lengthy run in the competition.
And with his side still just six points clear of the relegation zone despite last weekend's emphatic win over West Ham, the Northern Irishman is hoping there will be residual benefits to a successful cup campaign.
“This time last year, we got on a bit of a run and I think the FA Cup helped us in terms of league performances,” he said. “Those teams heavily involved in Champions League games, they can prioritise and that's entirely up to them.
“We only have the two competitions to go, so I don't see why we shouldn't try to get the same sort of run going that we did last year.
“We'll be naming as strong a side as we can. You're past Christmas and into January now, so why shouldn't you give it everything you've got?
“I heard Phil Neville say that Everton want to try to win the cup, which befits a side like that. He said that outside replays, they're down to one game a week now.
“We've had to carry players for a lot of the time (in the first half of the season), but there's that psychological feeling now that if you've only got one league game a week to play, why shouldn't you try to stay in the cup?”
O'Neill eschewed the temptation to rest players in the original tie at the Reebok Stadium, and any changes to tonight's starting line-up will be enforced.
There are a couple of players carrying knocks in the wake of Saturday's success over the Hammers, but it is hoped the Black Cats' starting side will be unchanged.
Alfred N'Diaye and Kader Mangane are ineligible, while Danny Rose and Carlos Cuellar remain sidelined with the injuries they sustained at Bolton ten days ago.
Sunderland produced an excellent second-half display to claw back a two-goal deficit at the Reebok Stadium, and after following that up with arguably their most accomplished display of the season against West Ham, O'Neill is hoping the same focus and intensity will be in evidence tonight.
“I do believe that our second-half performance at Bolton, urged on by the crowd of course, was part of the reason why we started so well against West Ham,” he said. “It's up to us to continue that.
“That has to be the benchmark now. It was a very fine performance that started early in the game. We got them turned and were able to keep it going. (Seb) Larsson's goal gave us all a lift, but that might have been the second goal in the game so well had we started.”
A similar opening spell tonight would be welcome, but having watched goals from Chung-yong Lee and Marvin Sordell threaten to send his side crashing out of the FA Cup in the first tie, O'Neill will be taking nothing for granted despite Bolton's position in the bottom half of the Championship.
“We were a long way from being in that hat at about ten past four in the game at Bolton,” he said. “We want to try to get started a bit more brightly, and don't really want to hand them a goal like we did through there.
“I'd like to see us start better, but the most important thing is just to win. If you were to tell me now that we'd be playing Everton in the fourth round but we'd need extra-time and penalties to do it, I'd happily take that.”