Sunderland v Aston Villa: Black Cats to start 2014 by climbing table

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Though 2013 was arguably the most miserable year of Sunderland’s current top-flight stay, graced by only 31 Premier League points, there is already reason to believe that 2014 will be an uplifting annum.

They have a Capital One Cup semi-final to look forward to, are unbeaten in five matches, have kept three league clean sheets in four and recovered from 2-0 down in the final eight minutes at Cardiff on the one occasion that they did concede during that sequence.

New Year’s Day gift-wraps them two presents: a home game against the poorest team in the division over the past five rounds, and an 18th-versus-19th clash between Fulham and West Ham to guarantee that a victory will end their occupancy of 20th.

Sunderland are 23/20 to haul Aston Villa – currently four points off the drop zone – closer to the heat of the relegation cauldron, with the draw a 23/10 shot and a Villa triumph a tellingly long 5/2 despite the hosts’ position.

Paul Lambert’s side have lent the Black Cats a hand once already this winter, a 0-0 draw at Villa Park in late November halting their five-match away losing streak and inspiring them to win at Everton and point-pinch at West Ham and Cardiff.

Villa have capitulated since then, with one draw the sole fruit of their past five games’ labour as an overreliance on often aimless long balls and inability to lean on the formerly lethal Christian Benteke have debilitated them.

Their Belgian hitman last struck on September 14 due to a combination of injury and ineffectiveness and is 2/1 to strike at any time if fit enough to start at the Stadium of Light.

Nobody has stepped up in his lean spell to keep Villa firing, the result being just two goals in five fixtures and eight blanks in 13. Sunderland are 5/2 to heighten their gloom with a win to nil.

All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.

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