SUNDERLAND'S players continue to believe they can pull off an unlikely Premier League survival bid, with striker Connor Wickham insisting: “We are fighters, not losers.”
Wednesday's concession of an 89th-minute equaliser to Manchester City dealt yet another major blow to the Black Cats' hopes of clambering out of the drop zone, with the gap to 17th-placed Norwich City standing at six points ahead of tomorrow's equally-daunting trip to Chelsea.
For a brief spell after Wickham drilled home his second goal of the evening at the Etihad Stadium, it had looked as though Sunderland were finally going to claim their first league win since the Tyne-Wear derby win over Newcastle at the start of February.
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Vito Mannone's uncharacteristic late error changed that, but while the mood in the dressing room after the final whistle was understandably flat, there is a collective determination not to throw in the towel while survival is still possible.
“Can we stay up? That team in our dressing room are not losers – they are definitely fighters,” said Wickham, who scored his first Premier League goal since October 2011 when he converted Emanuele Giaccherini's cross to haul Sunderland level against City. “And we can take a lot of positives from Wednesday.
“We need to take it into Saturday and Chelsea. If we play like that then we can take something from the game.
“We can't give up, and we won't give up. We have five games to go and we need to do our bit and hope the other teams do their bit as well. It's as simple as that.”
While the final result might not have gone Sunderland's way on Wednesday, at least Wickham's performance has cleared up some of the uncertainty surrounding the club's attacking line-up in the final five games of the season.
The England Under-21 international produced the Black Cats' best centre-forward display of the campaign at the Etihad, holding the ball up effectively with his back to play despite the attentions of Vincent Kompany, and converting the two chances that came his way with a clinical composure that has been lacking in most of his team-mates.
With Steven Fletcher ruled out of the rest of the season and Jozy Altidore firmly out of favour on the substitutes' bench, Wickham will almost certainly start Sunderland's remaining five fixtures.
That is quite a turnaround from the first eight months of the campaign, when Wickham was sent to both Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United after Gustavo Poyet demoted him to the position of fourth or fifth-choice striker.
At that stage, Wickham's Black Cats career looked to be as good as finished, but to his credit, the 21-year-old has regrouped and returned to Wearside to provide a timely reminder of the attacking abilities that persuaded Steve Bruce to shell out £8.1m to sign him from Ipswich Town in the summer of 2011.
“It's been a long time since I've scored in the Premier League, so that was massive for me,” he said. “I have been sent out on loan a couple of times now, but that's football for me.
“I can only do what I do, which is play football, and hopefully I have done myself no harm with this performance.
“As soon as I hit the shot for that second goal, I knew it was in. I thought my first touch took me a bit wide, but then I got a good shot off. It was one of the best feelings I've had since joining Sunderland.”
Samir Nasri's equaliser lessened the impact of the strike significantly, but having more than matched a City side who continue to harbour hopes of winning the title, Sunderland's players have at least given themselves something to build on as they look to spring a surprise at Stamford Bridge tomorrow.
Like City, Chelsea desperately need a victory to maintain their own title push, but as was apparent on Wednesday, that can sometimes pile added pressure on the team that are expected to sweep all before them with a minimum of fuss.
Sunderland will once again be long-priced underdogs tomorrow, but that has suited them in the past – as evidenced by the four points they have claimed from Manchester City this season and even the three goals they scored against Chelsea in the home game at the Stadium of Light in December – and Wickham is hoping this weekend's game witnesses another surprise.
“I don't know why we seem to play well against the top teams,” he said. “Maybe it's because we go into the games as underdogs and enjoy that.
“City were probably expected to get five, six or seven this week, let's be honest. So we did ourselves some good by scoring two goals, and that isn't an easy place to go.
“There are five games left, and it's not impossible. If we keep performing the way we did (at Man City), then we'll have a chance.”