FOR Sunderland, it is one defeat in the last 14 matches. Their opponents this evening, Fleetwood Town, are unbeaten in eight and have won their last five games in a row. Rotherham United, top of League One, have lost one of their last 13 in the league. Coventry City, second ahead of tonight’s games and Sunderland’s opponents at the weekend, are unbeaten in 15 in all competitions, with their last defeat having come in mid-December. Rarely, if ever, can a promotion battle have been contested by so many in-form teams.

“When you come off the pitch and you’re at the top end of the division, you expect the top teams to have won,” said Phil Parkinson. “But I’ve not been in a situation where so many teams are on such good runs. That’s fine, it’s just important that we keep doing our jobs because at some point, people will slip up. We’ve just got to make sure that our run lasts longer than anybody else’s.”

Given the way things are going in League One, that could be easier said than done. The cream has certainly risen to the top since the turn of the year, and as a result, the head-to-head battles between the promotion contenders are likely to prove crucial. Hence why the next six days could be pivotal.

Tonight, Sunderland can move six points clear of Fleetwood, effectively negating their opponents’ game in hand. Win tonight and then see off Coventry at St Andrew’s on Sunday, and the Black Cats will leapfrog the Sky Blues and be guaranteed a place in the top two for the first time all season.

Parkinson deserves huge credit for the turnaround in the last two months, with his side having slumped to as low as 15th as he was being barracked by all four sides of the Stadium of Light on Boxing Day.

However, this is where the real business begins, and having been involved in successful promotion campaigns at Bolton Wanderers and Bradford City, the Sunderland boss knows the outcome of a season can be determined by a small number of key moments. Thankfully, he is confident he has a group of players who can handle what is about to be thrown at them.

“I’ve been involved in promotions, and they’re generally always tight,” he said. “One way or another, they generally tend to go to the wire and that’s something we’re prepared for. The key thing in my mind is that mentally and physically, everybody’s got to be prepared to go to the last minute, when the referee blows his whistle at the end of the last game.

“We’ve got to be prepared for that, but as I keep saying, we’ve got to stick with the process of, ‘This is how we’re playing – this is what we have to do to maintain that’. Whether it’s the physical stats, the movement or the timing of the runs into the box. It’s putting all those ingredients in place for us to play at our best. That’s what we’re trying to stress to the lads all the time.”

That, and also the fact that, man for man, this Sunderland squad is more than a match for any other side in the league. From Jon McLaughlin, a title winner with Burton Albion and play-off victor with Bradford City, at one end of the pitch to Charlie Wyke, a hugely experienced centre-forward at League One level, at the other, the Black Cats boast players that would be the envy of the vast majority of their rivals in the third tier. Having tweaked their style of play over the last couple of months, Parkinson certainly wouldn’t be swapping them for anyone.

“There’s not many teams slipping up at the minute, and if you listen to the comments of the managers that are up there, we’re all saying the same,” he said. “There is no let up and you can’t take your foot off the gas at all, but we’re certainly not going to do that.

“I feel the lads are driving themselves on at the moment, which is great to see. You can see it in training all the time, and on match-day, there’s a real sense of desire amongst the group to keep going.

“I think we’ve got the qualities within the team to maintain a challenge. It’s very competitive in the division, we know that, but I feel we have the quality within the squad we need. We just need to keep focused on every game now.”