WITH a mere four games to go, there is a finally a sense that the Premier League table is taking some sort of shape.
Much has been written about the refreshing concertina effect on the top flight this season, evolving from everyone bar Manchester United being blighted by inconsistency.
But the top six are now settled while the three consigned to the Championship will surely come from the current bottom five.
The only congestion is in the middle of the table where a pack of seven teams, separated by just four points, will all harbour top-half ambitions.
Achieving that aim shouldn’t be just a consolation prize for Sunderland.
While pre-Christmas hopes of Europe have been vanquished by an injury-ravaged second half of the season, Steve Bruce’s men can’t be content with ending the red-faced relegation worries.
Finishing in the top half would both fulfil pre-season expectations and ensure Sunderland are continuing to progress.
Plus there’s the small matter of an extra £800,000 in prize money for every Premier League place – not to be sniffed at when Sunderland’s summer rebuilding will need to be extensive.
Bruce’s men probably need to take a minimum of seven points from their remaining four games if they are to achieve their top 10 goals, with victory over fellow top-half hopefuls Fulham tomorrow a huge opportunity to notch back-to-back wins.
Sunderland have only registered consecutive victories once this season – January’s wins over Blackburn Rovers and Aston Villa – and they won’t have a better chance than tomorrow.
Forget Fulham’s convincing display against Bolton on Wednesday which took them into the top half and relegated Sunderland to 12th.
The Cottagers continue to be a Jekyll and Hyde side when it comes to the discrepancies between their home and away form.
While Wolves, Blackburn, Stoke and Bolton have all taken fewer points on the road than Fulham, Mark Hughes’s men are the only Premier League side to record a paltry one away win – matching their record from last season.
Fulham will be no different tomorrow.
They will set out their stall for a draw and hope their consistently well-drilled back four can tame Sunderland’s makeshift attack.
The Black Cats cannot play into that trap by hitting anything in the air towards centre-halves Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes – that would make it child’s play for the Fulham centre-halves.
If as expected, Bruce sticks with Steed Malbranque and Stephane Sessegnon as the front two, then Sunderland must keep it on the deck and try to make the most of the latter’s pace in behind.
Sessegnon must prey on the defensive frailties of left-back Carlos Salcido and look for the runners from midfield – something the Black Cats did superbly in the final half hour against Wigan.
That midfield will see Sulley Muntari on the left flank, with fit-again Phil Bardsley taking over from Anton Ferdinand at left-back in the only change from the Sunderland side that finished the game last weekend.
As an attacking threat, Fulham have missed the focal point of a fully-fit Bobby Zamora.
While the former Spurs man is back in the midst, he won’t be sharp until next season while the likes of Andrew Johnson and Eidur Gudjohnsen have seen their threat similarly diminished by injury.
With Danny Murphy’s star fading, Fulham’s most obvious attacking weapon is American star Clint Dempsey – whose brace against Bolton took him above Malbranque as the Cottagers’ all-time leading Premier League scorer.
If Sunderland can harness Dempsey, then they have every chance of notching a first clean sheet in six.
The test will be breaking Hughes’s side down at the opposite end.
But with the momentum and confidence gleaned from ending the losing streak against the Latics, the wins are likely to come like buses.
Verdict: Home win