CHRIS COLEMAN insists Sunderland are clawing their way to safety, but admits there is now precious little room for error ahead of tomorrow night’s home game with Aston Villa.

Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Millwall has left the Black Cats four points adrift of safety with 11 games remaining, but they have now played one match more than three of the four sides directly above them in the table.

Successive draws with Middlesbrough and Millwall have confirmed the presence of a battling spirit, but have done little to address Sunderland’s position at the foot of the Championship table.

As a result, it is surely imperative they return to winning ways tomorrow when they host a Villa side led by former Black Cats boss Steve Bruce, and that is likely to feature Lewis Grabban, who spent the first half of the season leading the line in a Sunderland shirt.

Coleman remains confident his side are capable of hauling themselves out of the bottom three, but concedes they will have to start making more meaningful progress in the next couple of games.

“We’re still only four points from getting out of it,” said the Sunderland boss. “If it was ten, that might be different. With each week that passes, it’s tougher, but we’ve got to look at it and say we’ve gained a point on some of the teams around us.

“There’s still 11 games, 33 points, and we’re four from getting out of it. There's a lot to be said between now and the end of the season – it's going to be bumpy, it's going to be uncomfortable but it's there, it's do-able.

“We're not even inching away at the minute, it’s probably centimetres in the right direction, in the last three games anyway. But we’ve got to hang onto it with both hands, and each game that comes, we’ve got to max out. Whoever’s on the pitch, whatever formation, we've got to have our mentality right, attack it and try to get the three points.”

Sunderland have now gone seven games without claiming a victory, but Coleman has nevertheless seen signs that convince him a sustained turnaround is imminent.

Having battled back to claim a 96th-minute equaliser against Middlesbrough seven days earlier, Sunderland’s players once again displayed plenty of resolve and commitment as they withstood a barrage of Millwall attacking in the second half of Saturday’s game.

Shaun Hutchinson’s scrambled equaliser might have cancelled out Bryan Oviedo’s opener and deprived the Black Cats of two potentially priceless points, but Coleman was still delighted to see his players going toe-to-toe with their opponents in the hostile environs of The Den.

“It’s the mentality that’s changed, simple as that,” he said. “Rather than hoping and praying that something will happen, we’re trying to make it happen. That's how things get done. Nobody gives anything to you, you have to get it for yourself.

“We're a story because everyone will be looking at Sunderland going, 'Double relegation for a huge club’. They'll enjoy us being where we are, so our approach is to forget everybody else, nobody likes us, everybody wants us to fail. It's great when you prove them wrong. It's very much that siege mentality.”

It is normally Millwall that revel in a mentality of, ‘No one likes us, we don’t care’, but Coleman clearly feels there is mileage in trying to bring his players together as others deride them and write them off.

He will be challenging them to build on their weekend performance when they host Villa tomorrow, with a victory surely essential if they are to have a realistic chance of turning things around in the final two months of the season. With 21st-placed Barnsley heading to promotion-seeking Cardiff City, tomorrow’s games represent an ideal opportunity to tighten things up at the bottom of the league.

“From here to the end of the season, every game we're going to play is like the last of the season,” said Coleman. “That's where we are. I'm not putting extra pressure on the players but no matter who we're playing - Millwall, Villa, whoever- we have to have that mentality because that's where we are.

“It’s game by game. We've been in the bottom three for some weeks and it's not a nice feeling. We need to, by hook or by crook, have that feeling of popping out of the bottom three, which would be a big boost for us. But we've got to get it, we've got to earn it and then hang onto it.”

Coleman has hinted there will be changes tomorrow night, but Jason Steele is set to retain his place in goal, having impressed on his return to the starting line-up at the weekend,

With January signing Lee Camp dropping to the bench, Steele made his first league start since October, and produced fine saves from Lee Gregory and Steve Morison to ensure Sunderland left South London with a point.

Steele had agreed a deal to join Derby County on transfer-deadline day, only to return to Wearside when the terms of the transfer were changed at the last minute, but Coleman always maintained he had not closed the door on the goalkeeper’s Sunderland career and proved as good as his word.

“I was pleased with how he did,” he said. “It's not easy to play for Sunderland, especially if you're a goalkeeper because you're the last man and one little mistake and you're in trouble.

“Of course, Jason had a tough time (earlier in the season), but I thought he showed good courage at Millwall. He showed a really good attitude since it didn't work out for him in the transfer window and he came back. He's shown a really good attitude in training – he's been positive and he's shown a really good attitude around the place and I thought he played well.

“He could have gone the other way since his move to Derby fell through but, if anything, he upped his game and worked really hard in training. He's never been a problem anyway.

“I was pleased for him because it's a tough place to play as a keeper. Millwall play with a lot of crosses and a lot of diagonal balls into the box, but I thought he coped with it really well.”