Chris Young: Forget what Norwich and Newcastle do, Sunderland are showing their mettle
Will Crystal Palace be saving themselves for the FA Cup final when they travel to St James's Park this Saturday, or will they still be motivated to reach the 40-point mark?
Have Stoke downed tools after two 4-0 routs or does the usual hostile reception await Sunderland at the Britannia Stadium?
And will Norwich triumph where Sunderland failed by taking maximum advantage of Arsenal’s shortcomings at the Emirates?
Wearside faces another week fretting over the permutations of the relegation battle and the endless questioning at the strength of opposition sides that both Sunderland and their drop rivals encounter during these crucial final throws of the campaign.
It’s familiar, painful torture.
It’s completely fruitless too. This year’s survival scrap seems to change by the result, let alone the week.
Even a magical final points total of 38 for fourth-bottom Sunderland looks uncertain.
Sam Allardyce’s unwavering prediction that 38 will be sufficient to stay up still looks a sensible one, yet what if Newcastle win their last three games and reach 39?
It would be some feat from Rafa Benitez’s side, who have no margin left for error, but with Palace, appalling Aston Villa and Spurs to go, it’s not impossible, particularly if the title race is over for the latter come the final day of the campaign.
We all tie ourselves in knots worrying about it all.
But take the gut-wrenching anxiety of the relegation fight out of the equation for a moment, and let’s look at the facts objectively.
Sunderland have a healthier goal difference than either Newcastle or Norwich, which has to be taken into consideration as a key factor when there are such wafer-thin margins between the trio.
The Black Cats have an extra chance to register a couple of wins than Newcastle, who, over the last week, appear to have finally found some dedication to their craft after a five-point haul from three games.
They have the third highest Premier League scorer of 2016 in their midst, in Jermain Defoe, and have accompanied that with resilience at the other end with three clean sheets from the last four games.
And while there was a touch of frustration swirling around the Stadium of Light yesterday that Sunderland couldn’t take maximum points against Arsenal, they still earned a positive result from what – on paper – was their toughest remaining fixture.
THE biggest hope that Sunderland can again repeat their Houdini Act has to come from the manner in which Allardyce’s men are performing at present too, and the determination these players are showing to stay in the top flight.
If this team had been around since the start of the season, they’d be well clear of this mess.
Sunderland’s January imports immediately produced an upturn in performance levels – that has been well-documented – but there has also been an evident bond and team spirit in Allardyce’s ranks.
It showed yet again against the Gunners, particularly in a couple of 10-minute first-half spells when Arsene Wenger’s men were completely monopolising possession and Sunderland were giving the ball away cheaply on the odd occasions that they found themselves with it.
Whether it was Vito Mannone making excellent saves, the impressive DeAndre Yedlin throwing his body on the line or centre-halves Younes Kaboul and Lamine Kone continuing their fruitful partnership, Sunderland were determined to keep a clean sheet.
That’s no mean feat. This is an Arsenal side who last failed to find the net in the Premier League on February 2.
From a side that conceded goals for fun during the opening half of the season, Sunderland have found their resiliency and a way of playing which suits them at both ends of the pitch.
Even Jan Kirchhoff – who was feeling the effects of constantly chasing Arsenal’s gold shirts by the midway point of the first half – got a second wind and delivered one of the passes of the season into Jermain Defoe’s path just after the hour mark.
If it hadn’t been for Petr Cech making a couple of smart saves to keep out Defoe’s half-volley and then Yann M’Vila’s scuffed effort on the rebound, Kirchhoff’s raking pass with the outside of his right boot would have had pundits salivating for weeks to come.
Perhaps Sunderland will rue the failure to find a route past Cech as they drew a Stadium of Light blank for the third home game on the spin, although Allardyce’s players were adamant that this was a point gained, rather than two lost.
Certainly, Allardyce felt that the chance was there to secure victory after urging his side to push up the pitch during the second half.
But while Arsenal fell into their usual routine of one too many passes and were not helped by the poor Olivier Giroud, they are sitting fourth in the Premier League for a reason. Sunderland needed Mannone to be at his very best, particularly the parry to keep out Alexis Sanchez’s first-half free-kick.
If Sunderland maintain these performance levels and sheer will-to-win, then they should be fine and register at least two wins, which looks to be a minimum requirement from the final four games.
That has to the biggest source of hope for Sunderland fans as everyone continues to nibble on their fingernails.