CARLOS Cuellar is confident Sunderland can cope with the loss of key players in the final two games of the season.
Craig Gardner’s red card against Stoke City on Monday night means the midfielder now joins leading scorers Steven Fletcher and Stephane Sessegnon, as well as skipper Lee Cattermole, in the roll call of major Sunderland players unavailable either through loss or suspension.
But centre-back Cuellar, who himself missed two months of the season with injury at the start of the year, is certain that the Black Cats can still perform impressively against Southampton and Spurs without their leading stars.
“It is always going to be a challenge, but one that I definitely think we are up to,” the Spaniard told the Echo.
“It is tough because the squad is small and we really cannot afford to lose anyone at this moment in time.
“But if you look at two of our very best wins of the season – Newcastle and Everton – we did it without our leading scorer Steven Fletcher, without our captain Lee Cattermole, and Craig Gardner was also suspended for those matches, if you remember.
“So we have shown we can cope with the loss of influential players and still go out and get excellent results.”
The loss of Fletcher, Sessegnon and Gardner is likely to be particularly difficult for Sunderland to cope with, as they are the club’s three leading goalscorers.
Fletcher, sidelined with a foot injury since March, remains Sunderland’s leading goalscorer having found the net 11 times in the league in his debut season for the club.
Sessegnon has scored seven but was coming into a rich vein of form under Paolo Di Canio – scoring two goals in his last three games – before a red card at Villa 10 days ago brought his season to a premature close.
And Gardner, who has contributed six goals in the league, eight overall, has proven to be a penalty spot king this season and that ruthless efficiency from 12 yards will be missed if Sunderland are awarded a spot-kick either against the Saints or Spurs.
But Cuellar believes that the remaining players will rise to the occasion – just like they did when Sunderland were reduced to 10 men on Monday and fought back to claim a point against Stoke.
The 31-year-old said: “I’m a big fan of Stephane’s – he has been one of our best players this season and scored important goals, he was in great form and he is an important player to us.
“But we are not thinking about that anymore, or any other players who can’t play.
“We have other quality players who can be involved – Connor Wickham, for example, will not be too far away.
“And I think you can see that we have the team spirit, in the players that remain, to see us through.
“We have focused more on being a team and that has brought us rewards.
“I think we have improved a lot and started to get results because we have been working as a team.
“We defend from the front and we attack from the back and that give us strength.
“We have lost some important attackers, there is no denying that, but I am not worried because we still have other ways to score and I’m sure we will.
“These last games will be tough, but I can promise that players in the dressing room are focused on being positive, not negative.”
Sunderland host Southampton on Sunday (3pm) before finishing their campaign at Tottenham the following Sunday (4pm).