Sunderland's diabolical season drifts towards painful relegation for Moyes
Sunderland's uphill struggle to survive into an 11th season in the Premier League will seem all but over if David Moyes' side cannot draw inspiration from Jermain Defoe's heartwarming return to England action to beat Watford on Saturday.
It is pointless to argue that there will still be 27 points to play for after the weekend. Sunderland have won just five games all season, and the only victory since Dec. 17 -- a 4-0 win at Crystal Palace six weeks later -- is now dismissed as a fluke.
With morale among Sunderland supporters at rock bottom -- along with the team they follow with such astonishing fervour -- only a victory at Vicarage Road would keep alive their slim chances of avoiding the drop.
If Saturday's game is lost and Swansea beat Middlesbrough on Sunday, the gap between bottom place and a position of safety would extend to 10 points. Sunderland show no sign of being capable of emulating Leicester's sensational recovery -- seven wins in the last nine games -- at the end of the 2014-15 season.
Reports that Defoe's contract allows him to leave on a free transfer in the event of relegation can hardly make Wearsiders feel happier. No one would begrudge a 34-year-old player's desire to remain in international contention, which effectively obliges him to stay in the top flight. But it would be hard to accept the loss of such an important figure -- currently joint sixth-leading Premier League scorer -- without his departure producing funds for a replacement.
That last Sunderland win before the strangely emphatic defeat of Palace was against Watford, with the winning goal in an edgy game coming from Patrick van Aanholt -- now reunited with manager Sam Allardyce at Selhurst Park -- in a move involving Adnan Januzaj and Defoe.
Januzaj has generally been as disappointing during his loan spell from Manchester United as Defoe, who again showed his undiminished prowess in front of goal when scoring for England against Lithuania on Sunday, has been a constant source of hope.
Technically, Januzaj is probably the most gifted player in Moyes' squad. The Belgian has shown his quality, even in games Sunderland have lost, but only intermittently. For any kind of revival to begin on Saturday, Moyes needs him to produce those flashes of undoubted skill on the ball.
Experience all season has shown that Sunderland's defence cannot be relied upon to keep clean sheets, whatever the standard of opposition. Out of 28 games, there have been only five in which Sunderland have kept their opponents scoreless. So Sunderland must at least aim to score more than once at Vicarage Road to have a real prospect of winning.
Watford have had a mixed season. Along with good wins at home against Manchester United and at Arsenal, there have been such dreadful results as the 4-1 home defeat to Tottenham. That game was so one-sided that a much heavier scoreline would not have seemed out of place.
But Moyes must not place too much reliance on Walter Mazzarri's team playing so poorly. Watford dominated the first half of the Stadium of Light game in December and will almost certainly threaten Sunderland's flimsy defence on Saturday.
Realism suggests a draw is the best Moyes can expect. But if his players raise their game and grab a win, the customary sell-out away contingent will return north with spirits raised. And there would then be a quick opportunity to turn raised spirits into serious hope, since Sunderland play again -- at Leicester -- on Tuesday night.
Leicester were also seven points adrift at the bottom when they began the escape act that would set them up for last season's giant-killing charge to the Premier League championship. That was on April 4, 2015. Two years on, April 4 is also the date of Sunderland's visit to Leicester. Is it Moyes' turn to produce a footballing miracle?
In the Sunderland manager's own calculations when deciding the results needed to beat the drop, their previous game -- at home to Burnley -- was marked down as a win but ended in a deeply disappointing goalless draw. It is reasonable to speculate that Moyes saw the trips to Watford and Leicester as yielding between two and four points.
And now he needs six. If only the most irrationally optimistic of Sunderland's faithful honestly envisage back-to-back away wins, that is precisely what Moyes has to aim for.
Otherwise, the outcome of a diabolical season, one that ends ominously at near-certain champions Chelsea on May 21, may have a settled look as early as Tuesday night.
Colin is ESPN FC's Sunderland blogger. Follow him on Twitter at @salutsunderland