CRAIG Gardner admits Sunderland have been stung by the loss of their two most influential leaders.
But with Sunderland perched so precariously above the Premier League relegation zone, the midfielder insists the Black Cats cannot afford to feel sorry for themselves over the continued absence of skipper Lee Cattermole and vice captain John O’Shea.
Cattermole will spend the remainder of 2012 on the treatment table with medial ligament damage to his knee, while O’Shea has missed Sunderland’s last two games with a calf problem.
Gardner realises the magnitude of losing the duo – particularly the influential Cattermole – at such a pivotal period, with just one point separating Sunderland from the bottom three.
Yet with Martin O’Neill unable to strengthen his options for another four weeks, Gardner says the responsibility lies with Sunderland’s remaining players to reverse a slide which is looking increasingly ominous.
Gardner told the Echo: “Catts is the skipper and his energy on the pitch is different class.
“The injury he’s done is quite bad and we need players like Catts at the minute who can rally us when things aren’t going well.
“It’s a shame, but he’ll soon be back and he’ll still play his part, around the training ground encouraging us.
“Don’t underestimate losing John O’Shea either. He’s immense for us at the back, just as Catts is in midfield.
“But we can’t dwell on things like that. We’re not a team who are sitting high in the league with 30 points on the board.
“We’re 17th, we need to grind some points out.”
Sunderland have the luxury of back-to-back home games to boost their prospects, although that may prove to be a poisoned chalice, with the Black Cats tasting victory at the Stadium of Light just once since March.
And in Saturday’s opponents Chelsea, Sunderland face one of the top flight’s heavyweights, albeit one who are in a mini-crisis of their own under the new stewardship of Rafa Benitez.
But Gardner says Sunderland must take encouragement from their second half performance at Norwich City last weekend after the Black Cats produced a stirring 45 minutes following an inept opening half.
“Of course we can take the positives into Chelsea,” added the 26-year-old. “There’s only one team who has gone to Carrow Road this season (Liverpool) and played Norwich off the park like we did in the second half.
“They battered us in the first half, but we were all over them in the second, where we had five or six clear-cut chances.
“We just need to bring it into the start of a game and we will, we’ll make sure we will. We have to take that onto this weekend because Chelsea is going to be a tough game.
“They need a win as much as we do.”