SUNDERLAND boss Steve Bruce has challenged his players to avoid a third successive Barclays Premier League defeat for the first time in his reign to re-ignite their season.
The Black Cats find themselves having to contend with an intensely difficult run of fixtures in the midst of an injury crisis.
Defeats by Chelsea and Stoke in their last two league games have allowed a resurgent Liverpool to leapfrog them into sixth place in the table, and with more difficult fixtures to come over the next few weeks, starting with Tottenham at home this evening, Bruce knows now is the time to dig in.
He said: “We knew that this would be the most vital time for us, the games we had coming up starting with Chelsea – if you look, Chelsea, Stoke away, Spurs, Everton away, Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool at home – it’s a difficult, difficult run.
“Now, for me, is the defining part of the season. Can we hang on in there, can we stay on the shirt-tails of Liverpool and Tottenham?
“That’s the ultimate challenge. But we have a great February and March to look forward to.”
Darren Bent’s defection to Aston Villa, coupled with injuries to Fraizer Campbell and Danny Welbeck, has piled the pressure on record signing Asamoah Gyan in recent weeks. However, the 25-year-old Ghana international took his tally for the season to nine at Stoke, and Bruce has been delighted with the way he has taken on the role of lone striker.
He said: “To be fair to him, he thrives on playing alone. All his career, he has done it – at Udinese, certainly at Rennes and for his national team, he plays the lone striker with somebody off him.
“He has relished that responsibility and played particularly well. If you look at it, he has got eight goals in 11 starts, which is a great return.
“He played very well last week and I am hoping he can do the same again.”