A few short weeks ago, it looked like Sunderland's time was up. After the defeat to Everton on April 12, they were seven points from safety with just six games remaining, but it was perhaps the manner of their defeats that was the most dispiriting.
Sunderland had picked up a solitary point in eight games, shipping 18 goals in the process that included a 5-1 thrashing at Spurs and a 4-1 hosing at Arsenal. All looked lost. Indeed, Gus Poyet was already speaking like a man who had accepted their fate, saying after the Tottenham defeat, as quoted by the Daily Mirror:
I'm very honest and I know where I am. If you look at the table and the games we have got left to win, we need a miracle. We need something unique. A shock. I cannot see it coming...
As soon as we go forward we cannot defend, we cannot make decisions. We cannot go one vs one. We cannot pass the ball, we cannot get a shot on target. There are so many things that we cannot do. And there is no place to hide.
Then came that remarkable draw at Manchester City, when in truth the favourites for the title were a little lucky to escape with a point, relying on a late equaliser to cancel out Connor Wickham's brace.
At that point it still looked unlikely they would survive and may have left their fans cursing that they could not come up with more performances like that over the season. Cruel hope was dangled, but they followed it up with an even more remarkable result at Chelsea.
However, that was perhaps not the most significant result of recent weeks. Sunderland's record in big games this season has been uncommonly, even illogically, good. They have taken four points from City, three from Chelsea (and only just lost the other game), three from Everton and six from their North East rivals, Newcastle, plus a couple of draws with Southampton for good measure.
They have taken 21 of their current 32 points from teams in the top half of the table.
Compare that with their record against the lower flights, which has seen them win just once against the other teams presently in the bottom six and only twice against sides in the bottom half of the table.
Therefore, one might have feared that the City and Chelsea results were simply examples of their "big game" mentality shining through. But then they steamrolled a Cardiff side that really does look destined for the Championship, and suddenly a couple of surprise good results has turned them into favourites to stay up.
They have a game in hand on those around them, and while one of them is against Manchester United and Ryan Giggs' feelgood factor, the other two are at home to West Brom and Swansea. They will probably only need one win to survive, given Norwich's final two games (against Chelsea and Arsenal). Plus, their superior goal difference is basically worth an extra point at this stage of the season.
So what has Poyet changed? In truth, not a huge amount. The formation is basically the same as it was, with the addition of Connor Wickham, a player with only a few Premier League goals to his name before his recall from loan, his inclusion being something of a Hail Mary pass from Poyet.
Still, this particular Hail Mary has worked out beautifully, with Wickham scoring four goals in the last three games, doubling Jozy Altidore's tally for the whole season.
Indeed, Poyet more or less admitted this week that he hadn't done much to the side other than recall Wickham. He said in The Guardian:
We've done everything and we've done nothing. We talk about miracles but this team needed a shock and Connor has provided it. Connor's changing everything. It's the most strange, incredible and unexpected season I've experienced in my entire career.
It's just possible that the apparent "giving up" has released some of the pressure on Sunderland and has allowed them to play with a little more freedom, the expectation of survival lifted slightly. Such apparently genuine resignation a few weeks ago could not have been an intentional motivational tactic, but Sunderland fans will not care; whatever the intention was, it's working.
With that in mind, it will be interesting to see how they perform now that there is some expectation on them in the last three games. For Sunderland, being the underdogs might be the best motivation of all.
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