GUSTAVO POYET admits his Sunderland players are fortunate to still have a chance of Premier League redemption – and has urged them to make themselves “heroes” by taking it over the final four games of the season.
Having looked down and out less than a fortnight ago, the Black Cats gave themselves a top-flight lifeline when they claimed four points from away games at Manchester City and Chelsea.
Those results have left Poyet's side three points away from safety ahead of tomorrow's lunch-time showdown with Cardiff City, the team two places above them in the table.
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Win, and Sunderland could potentially find themselves out of the relegation zone with a game in hand on the majority of their rivals. Lose, a scenario that cannot be discounted given they have failed to beat nine of the ten sides in the bottom half of the table so far this season, and their efforts at the Etihad Stadium and Stamford Bridge will almost certainly have been in vain.
“We have been in this situation, or very similar ones, many times, but we haven't been able to take advantage of it,” said Poyet, who is likely to name an unchanged side tomorrow despite the availability of Phil Bardsley and Liam Bridcutt.
“The world of football has given us another chance, and it is time to take it. We've given ourselves the opportunity so many times that I think it would be a shame if we didn't do it now.
“If we take this chance, I'll forget the missed opportunities very quickly indeed. We are very lucky to have this chance, and I find myself constantly coming back to that. But we need to do everything possible to stay in the Premier League, and that means taking this chance that has come along.
“Football is scary. This team is bottom of the league, but they can still be heroes. That's the way it is. When you get to this moment, having had so little chance, and you do something incredible, you become heroes.”
When Sunderland lost at home to West Ham at the end of last month, it looked as though their final chance of avoiding the drop into the Championship had gone. Seven days later, and a humiliating 5-0 defeat at Tottenham suggested the club's players had given up the ghost.
The 1-0 home defeat to Everton at least featured the semblance of a fight, but it is only in the last two matches that the Black Cats have rediscovered the form and spirit that briefly carried them to 14th in the table at the start of February.
Inspired against the top teams, yet insipid whenever they encounter one of their rivals in the bottom half, Sunderland are infuriatingly difficult to predict.
Yet for all that they have faltered at crucial stages of the season, they are left with a scenario where three home wins would almost certainly see them safe. Indeed, given the difficulties facing Norwich and Fulham in particular in the final few matches, a win tomorrow might potentially leave the Black Cats needing just one more victory to clamber to safety.
“With six games to go, we were dead because our next two games were City and Chelsea away,” said Poyet. “Plenty of things were pointing to us being down, but we are here. The challenge is still there. “If you believe in yourself, you will always have a chance. The problem is that there is only a few games left, so we can't wait for another chance to come along.
“We don't want to not win this game, and then go to Man United needing to win to give us another chance against West Brom. I want to take this chance because we've let a few slip by.”
If Sunderland are to succeed tomorrow, they will have to improve on their dreadful recent record when it comes to breaking down sides who are happy to cede possession and rely on a massed defence to frustrate their opponents.
Whereas the Wearsiders have proved adept at packing their own backline and hitting the best sides in the league on the break, their victories against the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Everton have come against teams who have been happy to leave them space in which to play.
Tomorrow's game is likely to be a much less open affair, but despite a record that has seen Fulham, Norwich, Aston Villa, Hull and Crystal Palace all claim at least a point from the Stadium of Light this season, Poyet has seen enough positive signs in the last few home games to convince him that his players are capable of breaching the Cardiff defence.
“In terms of playing and creating, we've done it in the last few games at home,” he said. “We created enough against West Ham and Everton, but we didn't convert enough. We had chances against Palace.
“The thing we are missing at home is to put the chance away against a team that is not giving us much space. Cardiff need to win, so maybe they need to do something different because they will be bottom if they lose. Maybe they will do something that is better for us.”