After a run of one win in the last eight games and just six points picked up in the same period, Sunderland have gone from looking toward a top-half Premier League finish to nervously looking over their shoulders.
Martin O’Neill’s side have hit a slump at just the wrong time and, as the weeks have passed, they have edged closer to the relegation trap door—so much so that just four points now separates them from Wigan, who occupy the final spot in the drop zone.
But just how safe is Sunderland from relegation? The short answer would be not very safe.
Only Stoke City are in worse form over the latest eight games and, only this week, Sunderland were dealt a cruel blow with the news that both captain Lee Cattermole, and leading scorer Steven Fletcher will not play again this season.
The absence of Fletcher, who suffered ankle ligament damage while on international duty for Scotland, for the final eight games of the season is a bitter blow given the fact he has scored 11 of Sunderland’s paltry 33 Premier League goals.
And the onus is now placed on January signing Danny Graham, who is yet to score in a red and white shirt, and young forward Connor Wickham to fill the void left by Fletcher and fire Sunderland to safety.
The problem, however, is the forthcoming games offer little respite to a team in need of a confidence boosting result.
Manchester United visit the Stadium of Light this weekend, and trips to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea and St James’ Park for the northeast derby with rivals Newcastle United follow afterwards. It is then Everton at home in another tough-looking fixture for O’Neill’s struggling side.
On current form, there is every chance that Sunderland will still be stuck on 31 points after those four games. It is the next three games, however, on which the club’s fate could be decided. In those three fixtures, they travel to Aston Villa before hosting Stoke City and Southampton.
O’Neill will be keen to ensure Sunderland’s Premier League status is secured before the final day of the season with his side signing off the campaign at Tottenham, who could potentially still be embroiled in a battle for a Champions League qualifying berth.
How the Sunderland manager would give for another of the type of backs-to-the-wall performances that secured victory over Manchester City in December. That was one of only seven Premier League wins, and at least another two are needed to stave off the threat of relegation.