CARLOS CUELLAR has urged his Sunderland team-mates to summon up the spirit of their successful Capital One Cup run as they look to stage an unlikely survival bid in the final seven games of the season.
Since losing in the League Cup final at Wembley, Sunderland have picked up just one point from seven matches, a sequence that has sent them crashing to the foot of the table.
FIGHTING SPIRIT: Sunderland’s goalscorer Lee Cattermole challenges for the ball on Monday but the Black Cats were hammered 5-1 by Spurs
Monday’s 5-1 thrashing at Tottenham was the worst defeat of the lot, with the Black Cats collapsing entirely as they conceded three goals in the final 12 minutes and carrying the air of a team that is resigned to its fate.
Gustavo Poyet admits his side need a “miracle” in the wake of their heaviest defeat of the season, but Cuellar insists the club’s players have not thrown in the towel.
Sunderland won seven out of ten games as they were battling on two knock-out fronts between the start of January and the middle of February, and a repeat of that form in the next five weeks would give them a fighting chance of staying up.
“A few months ago, we were putting in good performances,” said Cuellar, who returned from a five-month absence to form part of Sunderland’s defensive back five at White Hart Lane. “So we must try to clear our minds of the last few weeks and get back to the performances at the start of the year when we were playing well.
“We had confidence, and if we play the same as we did then, we can be okay. It is really, really difficult now, but we still believe.
“We have too many games to go to give up on survival now. We have teams down near us still to play who are also near the relegation area, and we have to take some hope from that. It is too early for us to say or think that we are relegated. We keep fighting.”
Sunderland didn’t look like a side with much fight in them in the closing stages of Monday’s game as Emmanuel Adebyaor and Gylfi Sigurdsson piled on the misery with late strikes that were aided by some desultory defending.
With eight members of the Black Cats squad due to become free agents in the summer, and a further five players only at the Stadium of Light on loan, the level of commitment to the cause has been questioned in some quarters.
If anyone had a reason to turn their back on their employers it would surely be Cuellar, given his lengthy absence from the first team under Poyet and the fact that he has not been offered an extension to his current deal, which expires in June.
However, the 32-year-old insists his motivation levels remain as high as ever, and has even claimed he would love to remain on Wearside beyond the summer – no matter what league Sunderland are playing in next season.
“I don’t know what will happen next season,” he said. “I would like to be here whatever division we are in, but I don’t know what is going to happen with me because my contract is finished in the summer.
“My main thing that I am thinking about is to try and keep the club in the Premier League. I am not asking the club what they are doing because the main focus has to be on this season.
“I don’t know what is going to happen, but I am really happy at Sunderland and I want to play more games for the club.”
Having been frozen out of the first-team picture since last November’s defeat at Hull City, Cuellar displayed understandable signs of ring-rust as he displaced skipper John O’Shea from Monday’s starting line-up.
He made a number of important interceptions in the first half, but failed to cope with the increased pace of Tottenham’s attacking as the hosts became dominant in the closing stages.
Poyet must now decide whether to stick with his five-man defence when Everton visit the Stadium of Light on Saturday, but his post-match comments on Monday – when he admitted his side “could not defend” when they switched to a flat back four – suggest he is likely to name five defenders for the fourth game in a row.
Whether Cuellar is one of them again remains to be seen, but throughout his lengthy absence, the veteran centre-half was working diligently to ensure he could do himself justice if restored to the team.
“I felt good for the match (at Spurs) and am happy that physically I felt fine, although the result was obviously disappointing,” he said. “I was working every day, so, so hard to get back into the team.
“It is difficult and I knew it was going to be hard, but I hope I can have a run of games now. John and Wes (Brown) were playing really well, and I knew I would have to wait for my turn.”