Six key issues Sunderland must tackle if they are to remain in the Premier League

Yann M'Vila
Yann M'Vila
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Sunderland’s hopes of extending their stay in the top flight of English football will rest on what happens in the upcoming home double-header.

Chelsea at home on Saturday followed by Everton next Wednesday night.

Sunderland can't rely only on Jermain Defoe

Sunderland can't rely only on Jermain Defoe

Only three games remain and with third-bottom Sunderland a point behind rivals Newcastle United, there is no room for error.

Here are six burning issues facing Sunderland as the season reaches a tension-filled, nail-biting finale.

Find a way of scoring at the Stadium of Light:

Sunderland haven’t managed a goal on home soil since the 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace at the start of March.

Since then, West Bromwich Albion, champions Leicester City and Arsenal have all left the North East with a clean sheet.

Seven points would guarantee Sunderland safety thanks to their superior goal difference compared to Newcastle and Norwich City.

Sunderland must win one of the next two home games.

Goals are needed. And they can’t rely solely on Jermain Defoe, with 11 of his 14 league goals coming away from home.

Maintain possession and stop the crosses coming into the penalty box:

Sunderland’s inability to cut out the crosses from the flanks is becoming an increasing problem, with Stoke City’s aerial threat again highlighting the issue.

Everton, in particular, will cause Sunderland big problems in the box if they allow them the service to Romelu Lukaku.

Sam Allardyce’s side also gifted possession to Stoke at the weekend far too easily, too often.

It meant Mark Hughes’ side could build pressure.

Keeping hold of the ball and cutting out the crosses are two key areas Big Sam will be drilling his players on this week on the training pitches at the Academy of Light.

Time to mix-up Sunderland team and keep opposition guessing:

Allardyce has hinted as much after naming the same side for five league games in a row.

Opposition teams know exactly how Sunderland will line up and the system they will play.

The time has come for some minor tweaks to the starting line-up.

Sunderland have been playing well since the start of January so there is no need for major surgery, but they are struggling to convert draws into three points.

And with time almost up, it is time to gamble with one of either Lee Cattermole or Yann M’Vila benched and a more attack-minded midfielder brought in.

Set the tempo early and feed off the atmosphere to calm nerves:

Sunderland were nervous against Stoke City from the off. The midfield couldn’t pick a pass, possession was gifted away with poor decision making from experienced players.

It cannot be the same against Chelsea and Everton at home and Watford away on the final day of the season.

Allardyce’s players need to set the tempo early on and feed off the atmosphere inside the Stadium of Light.

The fans have stuck with them through thick and thin. Another bumper crowd is set to be inside the stadium on Saturday with more than 43,000 tickets already sold.

Thrive on the atmosphere and take the game to Chelsea and the Toffees.

Take advantage of uncertainty surrounding Roberto Martinez’s future:

This time next week, Sunderland will be gearing up for the penultimate match of the Premier League season.

And Everton at home – Sunderland’s game in hand – is likely to prove the pivotal match of the 2015-16 campaign.

Once the game against Chelsea – who have also endured a miserable campaign – is out the way, the task facing Sunderland will be far clearer.

And Everton presents an excellent opportunity to take a giant leap towards survival.

Currently 11th in the league and knocked out of the FA Cup in dramatic fashion at the semi-final stage, Martinez is clinging onto his job.

They have nothing to play for and Sunderland must capitalise.

The Toffees have massively under performed – aside from the 6-2 thrashing handed out Goodison Park back in November.

A chance for revenge against a side that shouldn’t be feared.

And finally, treat the final three games like a derby – not a cup final!

At this time of year, players often come out with the line that they are treating every game like a cup final.

They shouldn’t bother at Sunderland.

The club hasn’t won a final since the 1973 FA Cup triumph.

Treat the final three games like a derby match instead – with Sunderland unbeaten in their last seven matches against fierce rivals Newcastle United.

The Sunderland players put everything into those fixtures.

Games against Chelsea, Everton and Watford should be no different.