GUSTAVO POYET admits Sunday's game with Cardiff City will almost certainly decide Sunderland's Premier League fate, and has urged his players to recreate the spirit of Saturday's sensational win at Chelsea when they entertain their relegation rivals at the Stadium of Light.
From a position of very little hope seven days ago, Sunderland have claimed four points from matches at the Etihad Stadium and Stamford Bridge to close within three points of safety with four games remaining.
Norwich's defeat to Liverpool yesterday further strengthened their hand, but Poyet accepts that while Saturday's result had major ramifications at both ends of the table, nothing has been achieved yet.
Sunderland remain favourites to drop out of the top-flight next month, so it is imperative they do not lapse into old habits when Cardiff travel to Wearside in six days time.
“I want Sunday's game to feel like the last day of the season because it's the game that we need to win,” said Poyet. “I want the ground to be full, sold out. We all know how important it is.
“We have to win it. If we want to have a chance, to do something special, then we have to win this game.
“We called it a miracle two weeks ago, and that is what it was. Now we've got the first part of that, we need to go forward and believe we can do it.”
When it comes to Sunderland, however, that is easier said than done. While the Wearsiders have pulled off some remarkable results against the biggest clubs in the league this season – beating Chelsea in both the league and cup, taking four points off Manchester City and claiming an away win at Everton – their record against their relegation rivals is extremely poor.
Remarkably, their only win over a team in the bottom half of the table came when they trounced Fulham 4-1 in January, so while home games against Cardiff, West Brom and Swansea would ordinarily represent an inviting route to safety, Sunderland cannot afford to take anything for granted.
Their tendency to perform better against the better sides can partly be explained by their preference for a counter-attacking style, which is more effective against teams enjoying a lot of possession, and while Poyet jokes he might arrange for Cardiff to wear Real Madrid strips, he admits he will have to come up with a formula for breaking down the Bluebirds.
“With the way we play and the way we defend, we feel very, very comfortable when we know the opposition is better – dramatically better,” said the Uruguayan. “There's a way to upset teams and do certain things on the pitch, but when we play against a team around us, we need to change completely because people expect us to take the initiative and take the game to the opposition. Those situations are a challenge.
“It's a characteristic, it's the group of players that we've got, it's the way that we play. Everyone's together, and that gives us something extra against the top teams. I don't know if Cardiff can play with a Real Madrid shirt – maybe it could be an option.”
At least Saturday's victory has transformed the prevailing mood in the Sunderland squad, and whereas survival seemed an extremely unlikely prospect in the wake of this month's 5-0 thrashing at Tottenham, there is now a powerful belief that safety is in grasp.
“The way I played football all my life, and the way I've coached all my life, is that you fight to the end,” said Poyet. “I was the person on the pitch where, if there was a corner in the last minute, I always had the feeling that the ball was going to come to my head.
“That was me, so why would I change now? I know I'm a little older and I'm losing my hair a bit with these kind of games, but I'm the same person and I won't stop.”
As well as transforming Sunderland's survival prospects, Saturday's game also had a huge impact on Chelsea's pursuit of the Premier League title, with yesterday's results meaning the Blues are five points adrift of Liverpool, who now need just seven points to guarantee being crowned champions.
“I've been here, and I know how important it was for Chelsea,” said Poyet, who spent four years as a player at Stamford Bridge. “I'm sorry about that, but I was doing my best for Sunderland.”