STEVE BRUCE says Sunderland must break the 40-point barrier as soon as possible and not risk becoming victims of the most competitive campaign in Premier League history.
The fading Black Cats have picked up just one point from their last 21 and a crushing 5-0 defeat at Manchester City on Sunday saw them slip to 12th place in the table with only six points between themselves and the relegation zone.
It is a stunning turnaround in fortunes for Sunderland, who have not been out of the top half of the table since October.
They had collected 38 points by mid-January with 14 games still to go and looked to be well on their way to Europe, never mind safety.
But almost three months later, they have yet to reach the psychologically-important 40-point safety benchmark and are beginning to look nervously at the situation below.
Bruce admitted: “I couldn’t have imagined a couple of months ago just how difficult it would be to reach 40 points.
“You look back at things that have happened and it was the Stoke game in February that sticks in my mind. We were 2-1 up with 10 minutes to play and if we had held on then we would have got to 41 points, but instead we lost 3-2.
“However, we are where we are and we have still got six weeks of the season to go and a lot left to play for.
“We’ve only picked up one point from our last seven games so we’ve still got work to do. We’re sitting in 12th position and if I am honest, yes, looking over our shoulder.
“We are having our worst spell of the season right now and we have to overcome it.
“All sides have bad spells – whether it be Chelsea, Man United, Arsenal or Man City or anybody. This is the most competitive the Premier League has ever been and it’s made it a fantastic league this year for the neutral especially.
“Of course, there have been ups and downs here like anywhere else and at the moment we’re in the middle of a horrible run but I still really believe we can cement a place in the top ten.
“If you look at our run-in, it looks good on paper for us and so it is entirely in our hands.”
This season is shaping up to be the tightest relegation battle in years, with just three points separating the bottom seven clubs, and just seven points between basement side Wigan and a top ten spot. And it looks certain that three very decent teams will go down this year compared to last year.
The increase in competition at the bottom is such that the points total that would have guaranteed safety last May, would today leave a side bottom of the table with seven games still to play!
Bruce said: “I’ve never known the Premier League the way it is now. Usually, the top teams are beating everybody else and I’ve never seen it where so many of the lower teams have got results against the top sides.
“Last year, you needed 30 points and a goal difference of minus 39 to stay up – to stay up! If you had that now, you would be bottom of the table! Wigan are bottom and they’ve got 31 points already.
“It just shows you what a fist of it all the teams have made this year and it’s not something that we want to get dragged into. The sooner we get over that 40-point mark, the better.”
Sunderland are at home to West Brom on Saturday, with the Baggies just one place and two points behind the Black Cats.