VITO MANNONE has warned his Sunderland team-mates not to assume that Sunday’s thrilling home win over Cardiff City means their relegation worries are at an end.
The Black Cats climbed out of the Premier League’s bottom three for the first time in almost three months courtesy of their biggest win of the season, and boast a game in hand on all three of the sides below them in the table.
Their fate is back in their own hands ahead of Saturday’s trip to Manchester United, but having spent most of this season battling against the odds to retain their top-flight status, Gustavo Poyet’s squad must now guard against the risk of complacency setting in.
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Norwich City look doomed given they face Chelsea and Arsenal in their final two matches, but Fulham could well pick up points from their trip to Stoke and home game with Crystal Palace, while Cardiff will be targeting Saturday’s trip to Newcastle as an ideal opportunity to kick-start a revival before they finish with a home game against Chelsea.
Sunderland will almost certainly have to claim at least one more win if they are not to tumble back into the relegation zone before the end of the campaign, and having worked so hard to clamber above the safety line, there is a shared determination to ensure their recent revival does not go to waste.
“We cannot assume that we have achieved anything,” said Mannone, who picked up Sunderland’s Player of the Season award last week. “Nothing has been done yet – we have just started the job.
“Before the Cardiff game, we had four games to go, and we talked about how they were four finals for us. We’ve only won one. There are still three more to go and they are every bit as important, if not even more.
“We have only won one battle at the moment. To win the war, you need to succeed in another few fights.”
Sunderland have momentum on their side though, and have also proved they are able to produce their best form when the stakes are at their highest.
Having claimed an unexpected four points from away games at Manchester City and Chelsea, it would have been ‘typical Sunderland’ had they slipped up against one of their relegation rivals last weekend.
As it was, they scored four goals without reply for the first time this season, and while Juan Cala’s first-half dismissal undoubtedly assisted them, they were comfortably in control of the game before the Cardiff defender tugged at Connor Wickham.
The challenge now is to reproduce the same energy and tempo in the remaining three games, particularly when West Brom and Swansea visit the Stadium of Light in the final five days of the season.
“We have a lot of momentum at the moment, and that carried over from the matches at Manchester City and Chelsea,” said Mannone. “You could see that we started very strongly (against Cardiff), and from that point onwards, we were totally in control of the game. That’s what you really want in your home games.
Sunderland keeper Vito Mannone
“Finally, we got a big performance and a big result. I thought we deserved the win, and we played like we should play every game at home. We dictated the game and played our football.
“We created a lot of chances, and made the other team suffer, which we haven’t always done this season. The crowd was exceptional, and as a team, I thought we did exceptionally as well. It was the whole unit working together, and thankfully we ended with the win.”
There was much to admire in Sunderland’s all-round display at the weekend, but it is Connor Wickham’s sudden emergence that has been the key factor in the club’s recent revival.
Having previously scored one Premier League goal in more than two-and-a-half years as a Sunderland player, the 21-year-old has now claimed five in the space of three games.
“You need the ball to go in the net, and sometimes you need a striker in form like Connor is,” said Mannone. “He has done a great job since he came back from the loan, and you could see that from the way he was holding up the ball, making the team come up the field, and finishing off the chances we create.
“He has all the talent in the world. Before, it was tough for him. But the work pays off. He went to the Championship, scored a lot of goals, and came back. That’s a good way to be.”