SUNDERLAND head coach Gus Poyet has urged his players to treat this afternoon’s game with Crystal Palace as if it was the last chance to save their Premier League status.
The Black Cats embark on the first of 12 ‘cup finals’ in their quest to avoid relegation lying one point behind West Brom in 17th place.
A win would take Poyet’s men level with the Eagles on 27 points heading into another crucial game at Norwich City next weekend.
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With the distraction of both cup competitions now off the agenda, Poyet revealed he has spent the last week challenging his players to prove they are up for the fight. Having made six changes to his side six days ago the Black Cats boss admits he will only field those demonstrate the right attitude in training.
“This week we have challenged the players,” said Poyet. “We've challenged them to make sure they put themselves in the team or on the bench. Every day.
“Don't come on Monday and Tuesday and think they're going to be there, because maybe they won't. I don't want people to think they are going to play just because they're good.
“I know maybe one or two through my whole career that were terrible in training, the worst, then very good on a Saturday at three o'clock.
“Here I don't even know if we have one. They need to show me every day so there are no bad decisions from the manager. There are players that have got a better chance of playing because of what they have been doing week in week out, but then there is always one or two decisions and lots for the bench that will depend on the players. “They don't believe it sometimes, but it's true. If you come in here every day and have been rubbish for two or three days and have shown no interest whatsoever, then you are not going to play. That makes it very easy for me.
“This week has been intense. It was the kind of week I like without massive quality but with intensity. Intense in tackles, intense in winning the games, intense in not conceding.
“You can feel that we are coming to an important game and we need to make sure we do that for every single one.”
The Wearsiders have two games in hand over some of the teams at the bottom, but Poyet is in no mood to take chances, insisting his side must treat today’s game as if it was the last of the season.
He said: “This is the last one. I would like to think this is the last game of the season. There's not anything else after, we just need to win this one to stay up and then depending what happens you go to the next.
“If you play as a professional in every game like that then you are going to get plenty of reward from the fans. They will love you because you show them on the pitch that you've really given everything in a game.”
When Poyet took over from Paolo Di Canio in October even at that stage of the season is was hard to see how the Black Cats would survive six points adrift of safety.
The Uruguayan has always maintained he would not have taken over had he not believed safety could be achieved and although Sunderland remain in the bottom three, Poyet admits he would take their position now given where they were last October.
“If you said back when I took over that with 12 games to go that we would be where we are, I would take it.
“I hate looking at the table. That first two weeks when it was internationals and then we lost against Swansea and had another week. Then it looked very difficult after beating Newcastle.
“To have that feeling now and to know how difficult it was and see what a great opportunity we've got now.
“I am always thinking about the next game, but especially this one. It is the most important one for me, because of the opportunity and why I came here. What my challenge was and what I want to achieve. If I want to do that this is a massive game, totally different to the rest. I am going to be nervous that's for sure.”