GUSTAVO POYET last night admitted that Sunderland's FA Cup exit would turn the focus firmly on the club's ongoing battle against relegation and described Saturday's home game with Crystal Palace as the “biggest game of the season”.
The Black Cats conceded three goals in the final 22 minutes as Hull City reached their first FA Cup semi-final for 84 years and booked a trip to Wembley next month.
Instead, of preparing for a return to London after last week's Capital One Cup final, Sunderland can now devote their undivided attention to a relegation fight that sees them one point adrift of safety with 12 games to play.
Their hectic cup schedule means they have at least two games in hand on all of their relegation rivals, but given that their rearranged games include trips to Manchester City and Liverpool, they remain in deep trouble.
That trouble would ease considerably if they were to beat Crystal Palace and leapfrog the South London club in five days time, and the lack of any further distractions could be a crucial factor in the final two months of the season.
“No one is going to be asking me what is more important, the cups or the Premier League, because that is it,” said Poyet. “From now on, we have to get points, somehow.
“It doesn't matter the team or the shape, any player who plays from now on will be a Sunderland first-team player and they will have to defend the club to the best of their ability. If we are good enough, we will stay up.
“I've been trying to convince everybody that the best way to have confidence in your camp is to win games and, when we were in the cup, those games were more important than the league. But now we are not.
“We are not going to talk about the cup any more. Now, we look to Palace. The biggest game of the season is on Saturday and I invite every single fan in Sunderland to fill the stadium and make sure that we make it very difficult for them. This is the key moment. It is now.”
Yesterday's defeat came courtesy of second-half goals from Curtis Davies, David Meyler and Matty Fryatt, with Sunderland falling apart completely in the latter stages of the game.
They matched Hull for the majority of a fairly uninspiring contest, but failed to force Hull goalkeeper Allan McGregor into a single meaningful save as both Steven Fletcher and Ignacio Scocco failed to impress.
Their lack of creativity and attacking vision ultimately proved decisive, and Poyet pulled no punches as he criticised his side's display.
“We didn't play well and didn't create enough,” he said. “I'm not going to go too deep into the reasons because I will find an excuse and I don't want an excuse. We are out.
“We were not good enough in everything - in 50-50s, in diving when you have to dive, in dealing with the referee when he panicked for five minutes, in giving a penalty away, in not recovering well or creating one chance, in not crossing the ball well. Everything.
“When you are not good enough, there is nothing you can do. We were in their half for 20 minutes, but couldn't create anything. We got behind their back four three or four times in the first half, but didn't put one proper ball in the box. If you don't do that, you cannot score.”
Poyet changed six players from the side that played in last weekend's League Cup final, although Wes Brown's omission was enforced because of a calf injury – the defender should be back to face Palace – and Jozy Altidore and Craig Gardner were also unavailable.
The Sunderland boss has resisted the temptation to make too many alterations during his side's cup runs, but feels that to focus on yesterday's selection would simply let his under-performing players off the hook “It would be a good excuse for the players to say I made a mistake and picked the wrong team,” he said. “That would be a good way to hide a disappointing afternoon.”
Poyet was quick to defend Lee Cattermole, however, despite the midfielder failing to tackle Meyler as he advanced to score Hull's second and producing a dreadful back-pass that afforded Fryatt a clear run on goal.
“Often, the one who wants to give you everything and is involved in everything is the one that makes the mistake,” he said. “If you hide or if you're not in the game or if you do nothing to take a risk, then for sure you will not make a mistake.
“That's the bad side of football. The one that takes responsibility, cares and shows you things week in, week out is maybe going to be the one that is in a position to make a mistake.”