Fulham V Sunderland at Craven Cottage : Match Preview
Fulham V Sunderland - view commentary, squad, and statistics of the game live.
Meulensteen focussed on 'huge' game
Fulham manager Rene Meulensteen is all too aware of the importance of overcoming relegation rivals Sunderland in a match which could see captain Brede Hangeland return after a three-month absence.
It has been a season to forget so far at Craven Cottage, with a topsy-turvy campaign featuring far more troughs than peaks.
The Whites had looked to be heading towards almost certain relegation under Martin Jol, but successor Meulensteen is starting to steer the ship back on course.
There have still been bad points - notably a 6-0 mauling at Hull - but victory over West Ham on New Year's Day means another win against Sunderland on Saturday could propel them away from the bottom three.
"[That gap] is why it is hugely important," Meulensteen said.
"West Ham was hugely important, which we came out from really, really well. We had a great result and a good performance.
"Sunderland is likewise. It is a huge game for us, it is a huge game for them, but we are being positive, have been working well and working hard.
"The quality has been there and it is starting to pay off. Hopefully that will be the same against Sunderland."
Such is the magnitude of Saturday's clash on the banks of the Thames that Sunderland manager Gus Poyet admitted the importance is not far off a cup final.
"I can see exactly where he is coming from, absolutely," Meulensteen said. "But it is 90 minutes-plus where you need to turn up.
"It is good for us that is played at home because it gives you that slight advantage with your own fans, so hopefully that will help us get the win."
The Black Cats head to west London buoyed by an impressive 2-1 Capital One Cup semi-final victory over Manchester United on Tuesday.
Fulham have also received a boost ahead of the match, with news that captain Hangeland could make his first appearance since the 4-1 win at Crystal Palace on October 21.
The 32-year-old centre-back underwent surgery in December to clear sciatic nerve trouble and is now back in full training with the Whites.
"Brede is coming with full training with us, so he is up for selection in that respect, so he has done really, really well and is progressing nicely," Meulensteen said.
"It is up for us to decide whether he is okay to start. We haven't made our mind up completely, but I am very happy that he is up there for selection.
"But when people come back from a long injury, the last thing you want is to come back and then go again. We want him to come and stay, so we will be very, very cautious."
Goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg could also return and will have an ankle complaint assessed before the match, while full-back Kieran Richardson is available after hamstring tightness to face his former club.
Bryan Ruiz may well be left out of the squad after Meulensteen confirmed the Costa Rica international can leave in January, with Real Betis and a return to Holland among the possible destinations.
Sunderland boss Poyet believes midfielder Adam Johnson can play a "massive" part in the Black Cats' bid to claw their way out of the Premier League relegation zone.
Poyet's men head to Fulham on Saturday still on a high from their midweek heroics against Manchester United, in which Johnson played a crucial role in coming off the bench to win the penalty which secured a famous win.
Johnson's positive performance followed on from his match-winning display in the FA Cup third round win over Carlisle last Sunday and suggested he could be ready to rediscover the form which convinced the club to sign him for B#10million from Manchester City in August 2012.
Poyet said: "When you have got a player like Adam who is on good form the chance that you will stay in the Premier League is massive.
"Adam has started the year fantastically and he made my day the other day so I am looking forward to seeing him stay on that level.
"I have seen him happier and more relaxed and really going for it. When we told him what we wanted him to do we didn't know if it was going to be possible, but he gave us all we wanted to see."
Johnson could have earned himself a place in the starting line-up for the trip to one of his side's chief relegation rivals which Poyet conceded could go some way towards determining the respective fates of the two sides this season.
Striker Steven Fletcher is set to keep his place in Sunderland's starting line-up after shrugging off a slight knock sustained against Manchester United.
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