SUNDERLAND entered 2014 at the bottom of the Premier League table and lost further ground on New Year’s Day when they lost at home to Aston Villa.
While things look bleak, it’s important to note that things have improved under new boss Gus Poyet, however marginally.
There’s hope, but what needs to be done to ensure that the Black Cats live to fight another season in the top flight?
As Poyet’s side prepare to travel to the capital to face Fulham on Saturday, here’s a look at what they need to do to avoid the drop:
1. Keep Hold of Steven Fletcher
Fletcher’s agent has told BBC Scotland that there are ‘other English Premier League clubs’ interested in his client and it’s vital that Gus Poyet does his utmost to keep the Scot at the club and not let him go this January.
The striker has been beset with injury problems which have limited his appearances this season, but there’s no doubting his quality when fit.
Thankfully for the club, Poyet seems to appreciate the value of the club’s record signing, intimating in a recent interview that he had no intention of selling. Fans will just have to hope that he’s good to his word.
2. Get Through the Rest of January Unbeaten in the League
It’s an exercise in cliché and stating the obvious to talk about a ‘crucial next match/month’, but it’s rarely more true than for Sunderland right now.
All three of their remaining league games this month are winnable, starting at Craven Cottage this Saturday.
A win against fellow stragglers Fulham could lift them to just a point away from escaping the relegation zone, whereas a loss would plunge the club into even deeper trouble.
The other two games are at the Stadium of Light against mid-table opposition and Gus Poyet should be aiming to get at least four points from them, or risk losing touch with the pack.
3. Find a Goalscorer
Only Crystal Palace have scored fewer goals than Sunderland this season and with an average of 0.75 goals scored per game, it’s obvious where one of the big problems is.
It hasn’t helped that, as mentioned above, top scorer Steven Fletcher has had injury problems which have limited his starting opportunities, with nearly a third of his appearances coming from the bench.
Still, when your top scorer has just three league goals by January, it’s a sign of a deeper problem. Either the midfielders need to create more chances or the management need to find a new striker in this transfer window to take some of the strain off Fletcher.
4. Tighten Up at the Back
As well as struggling to score, the Black Cats defence resembles a well-used sieve at the moment. Only Saturday’s opponents Fulham have conceded more league goals this season.
Sunderland have conceded 33 goals this term at the rate of 1.65 per game. Combined with a poor scoring rate, this means that the team have conceded more than two goals for every one they’ve scored. Grim reading.
Some consistency in goal might help, with Keiren Westwood and Vito Mannone starting 10 league games each this season.
At the time of writing, the team have conceded more goals at the Stadium of Light than on the road. Which leads to the last point of the plan...
5. Make the Stadium of Light a Fortress Again
Remember when sides were afraid to make the trip to Sunderland?
Those days have gone.
The Black Cats have mustered a meagre seven points from 10 games at home this season, the worst home record in the league.
Seven home defeats from 10 games has to be a massive worry for Gus Poyet and the Sunderland players, so turning it around for the home fans must be near the top of their list of priorities.
The fans have their part to play here, too. If they can give the Stadium of Light an intimidating atmosphere, they’ll become a much needed twelfth man.
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So, there it is. Nobody is under the false pretence that it’s going to be an easy fight, but Poyet seems to have the team up for the fight. We’ll have a clearer view of the situation at the end of the month and all Sunderland fans will be waiting with baited breath.
•This article was written by FTBpro’s Chris Deeley
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