THEY will leave the relegation zone for the first time since August if they beat Southampton in tomorrow’s lunchtime kick-off, but Gustavo Poyet has warned his Sunderland players that their survival bid is only half complete.
Last weekend’s 4-1 win at Fulham lifted the Black Cats off the foot of the table, and means they will go into tomorrow’s game having lost just one of their last nine matches in all competitions.
The run represents a marked turnaround from the dark days that preceded Poyet’s arrival, when Sunderland suffered six successive defeats as their season unravelled in spectacular fashion.
With the added bonus of a Capital One Cup semi-final second leg to look forward to next Wednesday, the mood on Wearside is understandably buoyant.
But with just six points separating the whole of the bottom half of the table, Poyet admits there is still plenty of work to do before anyone can begin to congratulate themselves on a job well done.
“It would be normal to start relaxing, but it is our job to stop them doing that,” said the Sunderland boss. “I don’t want to be negative and say that we have done nothing because that would be wrong. That sounds negative, and that is not the case.
“But I would like to say that we have only done half of the job we have to do. We are halfway there, but if we don’t do the other half, it will count for nothing.
“We were very far away when we started this, and everybody was looking at the table and writing us off completely. Now we are there in the mix, but that is still only a job half done.
“We have to speak strongly in those terms, because completing the first half was difficult, and achieving the second half is not going to be any easier.”
Nevertheless, a victory tomorrow would represent a considerable morale boost, even if the rest of the weekend’s fixtures resulted in Sunderland falling back into the bottom three by Sunday night.
Southampton’s preparations for the game have been overshadowed by the continued fall-out from the shock departure of chairman Nicola Cortese, and the subsequent speculation about the future of manager Mauricio Pochettino and some of the more senior members of the squad.
Pochettino pledged to remain in his position yesterday despite previously claiming he would leave if Cortese stepped down, but the uncertainty has taken much of the gloss off a season that had seen Southampton hailed as an example for other clubs to follow.
The Saints have built their success around a core of young English players, and Poyet expects this week’s events to have had an effect on squad morale. Whether that is a positive or negative one, however, remains to be seen.
“When people say it doesn’t affect the players, it does,” said the Sunderland boss. “But that doesn’t mean it affects you badly, it can affect you the other way.
“If you wake up and it’s a mess in your club, if you care about the club it will affect you. But the reaction? We will see. We don’t know how Southampton will react to what has happened.
“It’s not what the manager likes, I can tell you. It’s not the best thing that can happen to you. But we know they are a top team, so we have to think they will be doing the same things they have done so well all season.
“They’ve got very good players. For me, apart from Luis Suarez, who is above everybody else, (Adam) Lallana is in the top five players this season. But we have proved that if we do things well, it is difficult to beat us. We have to concentrate on that.”
Poyet is set to add to his squad ahead of tomorrow’s game, with Santiago Vergini’s move from Estudiantes effectively complete.
The framework for an agreement is in place, and Vergini has travelled to England in the hope of finalising his move within the next 24 hours. It is still going on, and that’s the only thing I can say,” said Poyet. “It’s not finished either way.”
One deal that was completed yesterday was the permanent departure of Ji Dong-won to Augsburg for an undisclosed fee which is understood to have been around £1m.
The Black Cats rejected an offer of around £4.5m from Borussia Dortmund in the summer because Paolo Di Canio wanted to give the South Korean another chance to prove himself, but it has not taken Poyet long to decide to move him on.
“He had six months left on his contract, and was not playing week in, week out,” he said. “The player wanted to play football and we wish him well.
“For some reason, it didn’t work out for him at Sunderland. Let’s hope it works out for him at his next club. He’s been in and out of the team and had a few issues previously. But he’s a very good lad with plenty of qualities.”
Meanwhile, Keiren Westwood has undergone a shoulder operation, with Poyet revealing the goalkeeper’s injury is not as bad as first feared.
“He will start recovering next week,” he said. “In the end it was better than we thought, although it is difficult to say a (recovery) time.”