GUSTAVO POYET has challenged his Sunderland players to prove they have the stomach for a relegation fight when they travel to title hopefuls Liverpool on Wednesday.
The Black Cats passed up an opportunity to haul themselves out of the bottom three on Saturday when they slipped to a dispiriting but utterly deserved 2-0 defeat at relegation rivals Norwich City.
Despite the huge importance of the game, Poyet's side appeared to lack both desire and urgency during a lacklustre showing that has heightened fears of the drop.
Fortunately, other results went in Sunderland's favour, so the Wearsiders remain three points adrift of safety as they prepare to head to Anfield in two days time to play one of their two games in hand.
This week's challenge could hardly be more daunting given Liverpool's sensational recent form, which was perfectly encapsulated by Saturday's thrilling 6-3 win at Cardiff City, but while few will expect Sunderland to take anything on Wednesday, Poyet is desperate to see an improvement in the attitude and approach of his squad.
When asked if enough of his players were playing for the future of both the club and their careers at Carrow Road, the Black Cats boss said: “I think it's a good question – you need to ask them. I don't know the answer, but we didn't look like it.
“We didn't look like we were really fighting for our lives in the first 30 minutes. I'm very disappointed because it was kind of like a final for us, and in a kind of final, you cannot play in the way we played for the first ten minutes in particular.
“I'm not happy, and we need to put it right. Going to Liverpool is obviously going to be difficult, but we need to show what we're about and produce a response.”
Poyet's frustration at his side's lacklustre showing on Saturday was apparent from the earliest stages of the game. The Uruguayan was clearly disenchanted with the efforts of a group of players who were second to almost every 50-50 challenge and unable to match the intensity and focus of their opponents.
Robert Snodgrass' 20th-minute opener left Sunderland with a mountain to climb, and while Alex Tettey's wonder strike was impossible to defend against, a 2-0 lead was no more than Norwich deserved for their efforts in the opening 35 minutes.
Poyet's response was to replace both Jack Colback and Ki Sung-Yueng before half-time, and while the Sunderland boss had never previously taken such drastic action in the first half of a game, he felt it was the only way to prevent a bad situation becoming worse.
“I'd never done that before, and when I started my career as a manager, I thought I never would,” he said. “But that just shows you can never say never, no?
“Jack and Ki played a part (in the poor first-half performance), but it wasn't just because of those two and I could really have changed seven or eight.
“I'm not just saying that because I want to defend the players. Jack and Ki have been outstanding for me, but I needed to change something, and that was the best option for the team at the time. It worked for a while, although it wasn't enough. But at least we were a different team in the second half.”
Poyet must now decide what type of team to pick at Anfield, although his options are reduced by the unavailability of Fabio Borini and Marcos Alonso.
Borini is ineligible because he is on a season-long loan from Liverpool, so in the continued absence of the injured Steven Fletcher, Jozy Altidore will almost certainly continue up front despite producing yet another ineffectual display against Norwich.
Former Liverpool full-back Andrea Dossena is likely to be recalled to replace Alonso, who was dismissed when he picked up a second yellow card for a deliberate handball in the final minute of Saturday's game.
“That red card probably just shows how the season is going for us,” said Poyet. “I keep on being asked whether we are a dirty team because we're getting too many red cards. It's just another thing we'll have to overcome.
“I don't think the game was that bad for so many yellow cards (eight in total), but I won't blame Phil Dowd because sometimes when you come into these games, you try to calm things quickly.
“But after you've shown one or two (cards), you need to show six or seven because every tackle looks like a bad one (in comparison). He made a decision that was wrong, but it didn't influence the game.”