If Sunderland are to avoid the drop, they are almost certainly going to have to win at least three or four of their remaining seven matches.
Given that they only claimed one point from their last seven games, that seems exceedingly unlikely. Go back a little further, though, and there is cause for optimism.
In the seven-game sequence that started on Boxing Day, Sunderland claimed 14 points from a possible 21, beating Everton, Fulham, Stoke and Newcastle, and drawing with Cardiff and Southampton. Repeat that between now and the end of the season, and they’ll have a fighting chance.
Their recent form might have nose-dived, but the vast majority of the players who were sweeping all before them at the turn of the year are still available.
GOING DOWN? Gus Poyet’s Sunderland are in the relegation mire
Rather than trying increasingly experimental formations and line-ups, might Gustavo Poyet not be better turning back the clock and sticking with the side that scored four at Fulham or three at Newcastle? At least he knows what that line-up is capable of if everything clicks.
They still have to play a number of the teams around them
It’s no use sugar-coating it, Sunderland’s next three matches are horrific. Saturday’s home game with an Everton side who have won five on the spin precedes back-to-back away games with Manchester City and Chelsea, both teams who are challenging for the title.
Once that run is out of the way, though, things become considerably more inviting. In Sunderland’s predicament, you want games against your relegation rivals, and in the final fortnight of the season, that’s exactly what they’ve got.
Providing other results don’t go too badly in the next two weeks, the home game with Cardiff City on April 27 could offer a final opportunity to spark a successful revival. Beat the Bluebirds, and Sunderland will have made up significant ground on one of their primary rivals in the bottom five.
Ten days later, and West Brom are the visitors to the Stadium of Light. At the moment, the Baggies are seven points clear of the Black Cats. If that gap has reduced at all by May 7, it could be halved in the space of 90 minutes if Sunderland see off Pepe Mel’s side.
Admittedly, Sunderland’s recent home form does not augur well, but with mid-table Swansea heading to Wearside on the final weekend, the latter half of the fixture list could work in the Wearsiders’ favour.
Norwich might not pick up another point
If Sunderland are to get out of the relegation zone, then at least one other side is going to have to drop in. At the moment, Norwich City look by far the likeliest candidates to crash into the bottom three.
Last weekend’s decision to sack Chris Hughton smacked of desperation, with his replacement, Neil Adams, boasting no previous experience at first-team level. If ever a side was panicking in the wake of a defeat to one of their relegation rivals, it is surely the Canaries.
This weekend, they travel to Fulham. Win, and they will be at least six points clear of the relegation zone and, to all intent and purposes, safe. Lose though – and they have not claimed an away win since the start of December - and there will be some extremely worried people at Carrow Road.
Norwich’s final four matches pit them against Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal. It is hard to imagine a more difficult run in, and there is a strong chance they will fail to pick up any more points if they do not get something at Fulham.
Even if that happens, Sunderland will have to keep their side of the bargain by winning some games. If nothing else, however, at least they would have something to aim at in the final fortnight.
A strong financial motivation for Sunderland’s players to succeed
A common accusation levelled at players in a relegation fight is that their motivation levels are not what they should be because they know they will not be personally affected if the worst-case scenario comes to pass.
At most clubs, relegation means top-earning players either leave or remain for a season in the Championship on their lucrative Premier League wages.
At Sunderland, things are different. The vast majority of players have relegation clauses written into their contract which will see an automatic wage reduction of around 40 per cent if the club drops into the Championship.
Admittedly, that will not apply to the eight players due to become free agents in the summer or the five players currently at the Stadium of Light on loan.
However, there is a large chunk of the squad that will still be contracted if relegation occurs, and who are therefore heading for a major financial hit if they are unable to safeguard Sunderland’s Premier League status. In football, as in most walks of life, money can be a powerful motivational force.
Someone generally gets out of trouble
On the evidence of the last decade or so, there is a strong chance that at least one of the sides currently occupying the bottom three will avoid relegation. The odds tell you it is more likely to be either Fulham or Cardiff. It could, however, be Sunderland.
Last season, Aston Villa were in the bottom three with seven games to play, with the team one place above them, Wigan Athletic, boasting a game in hand. By the end of the campaign, however, Villa had leapt to 15th and opened up a five-point gap to Wigan, who went down.
In the 2011-12 season, the change was even more profound. With seven games left two seasons ago, QPR, Wigan and Wolves filled the bottom three. Wolves went down, but QPR survived by a point, and Wigan eventually finished seven points clear of the drop zone, with Bolton and Blackburn dropping out of the league.
The stats for 2010-11 are even more positive from a Sunderland perspective, as they reveal the most recent example of a side clambering off the bottom to secure safety in the final seven games. Wigan were rock bottom at the start of April 2011, but by the middle of May, they had opened up a three-point gap to Birmingham, who went down on the final day.
You have to go back to 2009-10 to find the last occasion when the three teams in the relegation zone with seven games remaining all went down. Can Sunderland ensure the same does not occur this season?