Queens Park Rangers, Reading, Wigan Athletic, Aston Villa and Southampton may currently be below them in the Premier League table, but make no mistake whatsoever – Sunderland are in serious danger of being relegated to the Championship at the end of the season.
Sunday’s 1-1 draw with ten-man Norwich City at the Stadium of Light extended Sunderland’s winless run to seven league games. Out of form and lacking in confidence, everybody at the club will be looking nervously over their shoulders, not least manager Martin O’Neill.
History shows that most years there’s a team hovering above the relegation zone for most of the season, seemingly in relative comfort, but then find themselves on a glass mountain towards the end of the campaign where their slide to the bottom is inevitable. Blackpool, Birmingham, Burnley, Newcastle, Sheffield United, Middlesbrough and Wimbledon have all suffered that fate over the last decade or so, and all the signs are there that Sunderland are going the same way.
Much like everybody else, I don’t see a way back for managerless Reading or for big-spending Queens Park Rangers, both marooned seven points from safety with just eight games left, but the final spot in the bottom three is very much wide open and Sunderland are as likely as anybody to drop – making the 7/2 with bwin that they do so worth a bit of anybody’s money.
The Black Cats might be four points above third bottom Wigan, but with the Latics having a game in hand the gap is far too close for comfort for the Wearsiders and as Premier League clubs take a two-week break thanks to the upcoming international fixtures, O’Neill has plenty to ponder.
It is not only the fact that Sunderland have not won in seven and have claimed just two victories in their last 11 league games that is cause for concern – it is also the nature of their performances. Their laboured performance against a Norwich side that had their goalkeeper sent off in the first half is typical: unable to create any clear cut chances, Sunderland huffed and puffed but looked devoid of any true class and if anything, the Canaries could (maybe should) have won it.
Those seven games have hardly been the most taxing run of fixtures, either. As well as defeat to Arsenal and failure to beat Swansea, Fulham and Norwich at home, Sunderland have lost away to West Bromwich Albion and the doomed pair of Reading and QPR: a haul of just three points and six goals, three of which were penalties. Given the fixture list that is relegation form, make no mistake.
In front of goal, they have struggled all season. Sunderland have scored just 33 goals in 30 league games (and just 17 in 15 home games) and have scored more than one goal in just seven of their league matches this campaign.
It has been painful to watch, and O’Neill seems unable to inspire the squad at his disposal. Many players, notably Stephane Sessegnon and James McClean, have woefully unperformed and with the exception of Steven Fletcher, O’Neill’s signings have been either underwhelming (Adam Johnson, Alfred N’Diaye) or just plain poor (Danny Graham, Carlos Cuellar).
It really wasn’t meant to be like this. When O’Neill replaced the universally unpopular Steve Bruce – who himself was doing a poor job – in December 2011 optimism swept the Stadium of Light. A great start for the Northern Irishman – Sunderland took 22 points from O’Neill’s first 11 games in charge – looked to have set the Black Cats up for a march towards the European places.
But even that great run was built on quicksand. This fascinating article written a year ago by Sunderland fan and renowned journalist Jonathon Wilson pointed out the anomaly between the Black Cats’ results and their performance statistics – 49% of their goals were from outside the box, for example – and hinted that the Wearsiders’ form was unsustainable.
Wilson was emphatically correct, and the truth is Sunderland have been poor for the best part of a year now. After a chastising FA Cup quarter-final defeat to Everton, O’Neill’s side took just eight points from their last ten games in 2011/12, scoring only nine goals, and that form has just continued this year. With eight games left, they may get their comeuppance.
Because looking at the fixture list, it is hard to see where their next win is coming from. Manchester United visit the Stadium of Light after the international break. Trips to Chelsea and Newcastle United are then followed by Everton’s appearance on Wearside: four fixtures that would be difficult enough for a team at the top, never mind a team struggling so badly to create chances and score goals.
It means that by the time Sunderland travel to O’Neill’s old club Aston Villa on 27th April, I think the Black Cats are going to be right in the middle of an almighty scrap for survival and with Wigan known for their late-season acts of escapology, you will not be getting a price anywhere near as big as 7/2 on the Mackems’ relegation at that stage.
Take that price right now, because of all the teams outside the bottom three, only one of them are sleepwalking towards relegation – and that team is Sunderland.
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