Relegation nerves fray, mathematics get complex
Four games, with three at home against teams currently in the bottom eight, remain for Guy Poyet to complete what would be one of the most remarkable escape acts in the 22 years of the Premier League. Twelve points would keep Sunderland up in any permutation other than Norwich also winning their remaining games and by exceptional margins. But even partisan optimism has its limits.
Let us concentrate on what is more reasonable to hope for. Poyet has done the arithmetic and knows well enough how much rests, to start with, on Sunday’s bottom-of-the-table clash with Cardiff City at the Stadium of Light.
A bumper crowd is likely and I would love it to roar Sunderland over the first of the hurdles that must be cleared if safety is to be achieved. The outcome will not determine the relegation issues affecting either side, but may enable plausible conclusions to be drawn. A draw would help neither cause whereas a defeated team would realistically have to accept the probability of going down.
That suggests Ole Gunnar Solksjaer cannot play for a single point. A more ambitious Cardiff approach is required from him but this could and should aid Sunderland’s cause. The born-again qualities of Connor Wickham, after three goals in two games against the elite of Premier defences, could be vital; Sunderland may also look for another telling contribution from Jozy Altidore, who won the late penalty at Chelsea, or Fabio Borini, who converted it. Even men who know or believe they will not still be at Sunderland come August must perform as if on display in the most important shop window of their careers.
Unless there is an early home goal, however, the crowd’s nerves will quickly make themselves felt. Each misplaced pass, easy surrender of possession, squandered chance and -- heaven forbid -- Cardiff goal will plunge the stadium into despair, the players fully aware of the tension in the stands. The best that can be said for Poyet’s team and the prospects of a heartening victory is that self-belief should be immense after the wildly unexpected haul from trips to the Etihad and Stamford Bridge. Two games seen as home bankers produced four priceless points and revived the hope that seemed to be dying when Sunderland lost at home to West Ham on March 31, and to die with the 5-1 walloping at Tottenham a week later.
And the worst is that the same players have been consistently awful at home throughout the season. Three wins, each by a single goal and none of them wholly convincing, and three draws represent the Premier’s most pitiful home record. There have been unfortunate or spirited defeats to top sides but utter failure to dominate fellow strugglers.
Memories of goalless draws with Norwich and Crystal Palace are, in these troubled times, stronger than any warm glow created by the commendable achievement of reaching Wembley in the Capital One Cup. The magnificent 2-1 win at Chelsea was the first victory since that final on March 2.
Those relegation mathematics will become simpler once the weekend games are over. Fulham and West Bromwich Albion look ominously likely to win their home ties with, respectively, Hull City and West Ham United. Sunderland supporters are praying Manchester United's underachievers will want to win for Ryan Giggs -- they play Norwich at home -- more than seemed the case under David Moyes.
But Sunderland also have to visit Old Trafford, for their last away game of their season on May 3. That is one valid reason for thinking four wins from four is not an expectation founded on common sense.
With WBA and –- on the final day for everyone -– Swansea City still to visit the Stadium of Light, salvation will depend on a belated ability to do what is necessary on home territory. My latest back-of-envelope calculations have Fulham finishing on 37 points, Cardiff and Norwich on 33.
Since that would oblige Sunderland to claim eight of the 12 points at stake, Poyet needs three wins, or two wins and two draws, from the last four games. Or a further slip by Fulham.
And if I have still not made a convincing case for the significance of Sunday's game on Wearside, consider what one Sunderland supporter, Malcolm Ray, has to say. Entering a modest "guess the score" competition at Salut! Sunderland, he fancifully plumps for 5-0, adding that it would "double the actual attendance since everyone will claim 'I was there.'"
I heard of some spectacular windfalls for Sunderland fans bold enough to bet on victory, and goals from Wickham and Borini, at Stamford Bridge. I would not wager a penny piece on the way this season’s Premier relegation battle will resolve itself.