STEVE CALDWELL believes Sunderland, after failing to make the most of opportunities in the past, are ready to welcome the pressures that arrive with being in the top two for only the second time this season.

Victory over Cardiff on Saturday and defeats for both Wigan and Ipswich have tightened things up in the Championship, with all three sides having recorded the same number of points.

It is promising to turn into a topsy-turvy battle for the automatic promotion places to the Premiership with a little over nine weeks remaining.

But Caldwell, well aware that Sunderland have lost just one of their last eight league matches, claims the Black Cats are prepared for the challenge of staying in the top two this time around - having failed to make the most of slip-ups from both Ipswich and Wigan in recent months.

"We were pleased that results went for us.

"It will bring extra pressures with not many games to go but everyone has to relish those, which we didn't a couple of weeks ago," said Caldwell, who has played in the top-flight for both Newcastle and Leeds.

"We have to relish the excitement. We might look back on these days during our careers and realise how great they were. I'm confident we can stay where we are now, if not first place."

Sunderland have an inferior goal difference to leaders Wigan but, with the situation being so tight at the top, Mick McCarthy's side have every chance to claim the Football League title, their first since 1999, when they won it with a record 105-points total.

Caldwell admits becoming champions would be the perfect finish and an exceptional way to gain promotion back among the elite, but insists it's a case of first things first.

"Our ultimate goal is the Premiership. We want to get to the Premiership and we would take second place right now," said the Scotland international defender. "Inside, I hope we win the Championship. We feel we are the best team. It's up to us to get there and remain there during the next 11 games. I'm sure we can do that."

It was Caldwell who was on the wrong end of Andy Lee's elbow in the last minute, an incident that led to the Cardiff striker being sent off on Saturday by referee Tony Leake who will be looking at the incident again today.

But the Sunderland player said: "It was a nothing thing and you have to accept that in football.

"It's part of being a centre-back and centre-forwards get the same treatment. He apologised and that's good enough for me. I had a cut eye and it took me a while to come round. But that's it."

Meanwhile, full-back Mark Lynch, starting his first game since November, is facing a spell on the sidelines after dislocating a knee cap during the success over Cardiff.