Sunderland’s fate remains firmly in the balance heading into the final eight games of the season, with an upturn in performances failing to correspond with a points windfall.
But as they battle with Norwich and Newcastle to claim what appears to be one remaining available spot in next season’s Premier League, which way will Sunderland fall?
Here arefive reasons why the Black Cats will stay up and five why they will go down.
REASONS FOR HOPE:
1: Jermain Defoe.
Despite being in a side who has been in the thick of the relegation fight all season, only six players can boast more Premier League goals than Defoe’s tally of 12.
In each of Sunderland’s last two games, Defoe’s predatory finishes should have been sufficient to register three points.
But, unlike relegation rivals Norwich and Newcastle, Sunderland can boast a poacher, who can handle the pressure of that one make-or-break chance which could make such a seismic difference.
2: Recent performances
Over the last seven games, Sunderland have looked a far more convincing unit, with a clear strategy and a conviction about the way they are playing.
Results haven’t accompanied those displays, with last month’s 2-1 home win against Manchester United proving to be their sole success.
But if Sunderland continue to play in such a manner, surely the victories will follow.
3: Sam Allardyce
The Sunderland boss inherited an appalling mess when he succeeded Dick Advocaat last October, yet has managed to stabilise the club by averaging roughly a point per game.
Inevitably, there have been mistakes from Allardyce as he has searched for his strongest side and needed to test the mettle of certain players.
But the Black Cats have a manager at the helm who has plenty of relegation fight experience and has always prevailed in keeping his teams in the top flight.
4: January signings
Loan arrival Dame N’Doye has been underwhelming, but the other three players added to Sunderland’s first-team squad in January have been huge success stories.
The transfer window has proved to be Sunderland’s most successful period for incomings in five years, with Lamine Kone, Jan Kirchhoff and Wahbi Khazri instantly finding their feet in the Premier League.
With that trio strengthening Sunderland’s spine, the Black Cats’ survival prospects immediately look much better.
5: Experience of drop battles
The current plight is nothing new to Sunderland after dramatic near-misses in each of the previous three seasons.
The likes of John O’Shea, Seb Larsson and Lee Cattermole have experienced them all, and know the character and composure which is required to prevail.
Sunderland fans are also well aware of this situation, and the patience and backing required to secure that one result which makes all the difference.
REASONS TO WORRY:
1: An inability to keep a clean sheet
Sunderland have now gone 16 games without registering a shut-out as the defensive troubles which have undermined their efforts all season continue.
The Black Cats are not collapsing at the back, as they did earlier in the campaign, yet the awful lapses of concentration and individual errors are still prevalent.
A month ago, Allardyce said that Sunderland would be relegated if they failed to record another clean sheet. They have so far been unable to alter that bleak prediction.
2: An inability to hold the advantage
Away to both Southampton and Newcastle, Sunderland entered the final stages on the verge of recording victories which would have had a huge impact on their survival prospects.
But they couldn’t hold on; dropping deeper and deeper before their fragility was eventually punished with a last-gasp equaliser.
Mentally, those last two results will surely have had a significant impact on Allardyce’s men.
The home form has been the key to Sunderland remaining in touch with their fellow relegation rivals after registering 16 of their 26 points at the Stadium of Light.
But while only three of Sunderland’s remaining eight games are on the road, their last home encounters are far from straightforward.
Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton and table-toppers Leicester are all due on Wearside, and all possess the fire-power to punish a fragile defence.
4: Carrow Road record
Next month’s trip to Norwich is pivotal, yet all three of Sunderland’s Premier League visits to Carrow Road have culminated in costly defeats, when the Black Cats have struggled to cope with the intense atmosphere inside the compact ground.
The 2-0 loss in March 2014 was particularly painful to watch in a game billed as a potential decider between two relegation rivals.
Gus Poyet’s side completely folded and succumbed to a defeat which looked to have propelled them into the Championship.
5: Fatigue factor
While Sunderland’s January signings have unquestionably improved the side, there remain teething problems in adapting to the intensity of English football.
Wahbi Khazri and, particularly, Jan Kirchhoff continue to flag badly in the latter stages of games and that proved costly against both Southampton and Newcastle.
Kirchhoff’s inability to last 90 minutes is a concern, given his knack of controlling proceedings for the opening hour.