O'NEILL STRIVING FOR TOP 10 FINISH
Martin O'Neill insists Sunderland can't regard themselves as an established Barclays Premier League club simply because they secured a top-10 finish last season.
The Black Cats dragged themselves into 10th place on the final day of the campaign, largely as a result of derby rivals Newcastle's failure to hold on to a 3-0 lead over West Brom, to fulfil the mission on which they had set out in the previous August.
However, O'Neill arrived on Wearside in December to inherit a club flirting with relegation, and the recovery he has inspired since sees them heading for Manchester City on Saturday sitting in eighth and targeting an improvement this time around.
But while the Northern Irishman has been hugely encouraged by what he has seen so far, even after Tuesday night's FA Cup quarter-final replay no-show against Everton, he is adamant that for all but the traditional Premier League powerhouses, the quest for the top half of the table is a weekly battle.
O'Neill said: "I have heard we want to be a top-10 team, a top-10 football club, and that's great, it's a great ambition.
"But you have to strive for that. You just don't turn up at the start of the season and say, 'We are a top-10 side' and things fall in accordingly.
"You don't realise. You have to battle every single week for that, every week, and this is the point.
"There is no such thing as somebody being established - I will probably excuse the top six teams, who consider themselves in terms of the money stakes and all that to be very, very strong now, stronger than ever before, perhaps.
"But you have to start again and you have to go and fight from the opening day of the season right to the end.
"Only then when you have finished the season, if you are lucky enough to have done so well, then you can turn around and say, 'That was good'.
"Then you start the next year again."
Such is O'Neill's pragmatism that he will not allow himself to rest until the Black Cats are mathematically assured of their place in next season's top flight, something they effectively wrapped up last Saturday with a comprehensive victory over QPR which took them to 40 points.
He said: "I am obviously pleased to be sitting at this stage thinking that with a bit of luck, we will be playing here next year.
"We might just be not mathematically certain to do that, but there's a good chance that we will, and in the disappointment of Tuesday night, I think that's been lost somewhat."
O'Neill's pessimism perhaps reflects a run of fixtures which will test his injury-hit squad to the full, with Saturday's trip to the Etihad Stadium the precursor for Champions League-chasing Tottenham to head for the Stadium of Light before the Easter Monday visit to cup conquerors Everton.
The former Celtic manager is perhaps as well-placed as anybody to understand what City boss Roberto Mancini is going through as he attempts to reel in leaders Manchester United having himself worked for a club where second place is regarded as failure.
He said: "The expectation, obviously, is very, very high. They have very, very good players.
"Those players come at a cost like everything else and they are genuinely a very fine side, a fine side.
"I am sure he would be very, very keen to win the championship. This is a great opportunity for them this year, and maybe that expectation is there as well. They are still capable of doing it.
"The Manchester City fans now, because of the money they have spent and the quality of player they do possess there, they would think this is still a big year for them."
Full-back Wayne Bridge is ineligible to play against his parent club, and either Kieran Richardson, who has returned to light training after a calf injury, or Jack Colback, who sat out in midweek because of the birth of his first child, are in line to deputise.
However, John O'Shea is definitely sidelined and skipper Lee Cattermole is battling against a knee injury for a game in which victory would give Sunderland an unlikely double following their 1-0 win over City on New Year's Day.
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