Bullish Jack Ross assesses where his Sunderland side stand in race for top two ahead of the final ten games

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Jack Ross had no intention of playing down the importance of Saturday’s clash with Walsall.

By 3pm on Saturday afternoon, the Black Cats will be under pressure.

They will have two games in hand on Barnsley, who face what, on paper at least, is a tough challenge away to Doncaster Rovers on Friday night.

The door will be open either to make a big dent in that gap to second, or the pressure on to keep pace.

Regardless of what happens at the Keepmoat Stadium, Ross says it is imperative to enter a long break from league action on a high.

After two bruising away games, though, he remains confident.

Fresh in his memory is one of Sunderland’s best performances this season, comfortably beating an in-form Plymouth Argyle in the last game at the Stadium of Light.

“At this stage of the season, we need to win games regularly,” he said.

“Our recent form is OK.

“This is a home game and the onus will be on us to win the game, but our last home performance was very good.

“Plymouth were a team in terrific form, but we played well and won the game well.

“The players are confident that they can do that again.

“Irrespective of what happens on Friday night, it doesn’t change the importance of the game for us,” he added.

“Win, lose or draw for Barnsley, we know we have to win the game.

“Even more so because of the enforced break that we’re going to have.

“We want to ensure we go into that break with a win, with that optimism that we’re still in a good place.

“That irrespective of what happens in that spell where we don’t have a league game, we’re still going to be in with a chance of achieving what we want to achieve.

“It’s not ideal, we had to play catch up [with fixtures] earlier in the season and we’re going to have to do that again.

“I think the group are relishing the challenge.”

Ross was keen in the build-up to this clash to stress that his team remain in a good place.

Two draws have checked their momentum somewhat but he dismissed as ‘nonsense’ and ‘disrespectful’ any suggestion that his team should be running away with the league.

Earlier this season, Ross revealed he has a chart that tracks how previous League One promotion winners have fared throughout the season.

Right now, his side are off the pace being set by Luton Town and Barnsley’s form has understandably led to plenty of promotion nerves on Wearside.

But with ten games to go, how does Ross assess where his Sunderland team stand?

“It goes without saying that I’d like to be where Luton are,” he said.

“Where we are, it’s there or thereabouts.

“That’s the worst case scenario if you like, you want to be in a position where you have a chance of achieving promotion. It’s not a slim chance we have, it’s a good chance.

“We have to keep wininng games.

“I know people will look and say it’s out of our hands but it’s only really if there’s a game or two to go.

“Right now, it’s dramatic to say that, there’s so much of the season to play.

“Right now, we’re OK,” he added.

“We’ve kept ourselves consistently in and around a position where we can achieve success. That’s what we’ve had to do, we’ve had to dig in and we’ve done that.

“If you can win Saturday, you can go into the little break and then come out of it knowing, ‘here we go, nine games in a month that you can go at’.”

Throughout the campaign, Ross has set two-points-per-game ration as a target that should achieve promotion.

A win against Walsall would take his side to the brink of that.

Having played a game more, Barnsley are currently exactly at that mark with three draws and two wins in their last five games.

So does Ross believe his side will have to push beyond that ratio to go up?

“Not really, Barnsley are pretty much there,” Ross said.

“Luton’s form has been incredible.

“When you’re in a league where the team at the top is in the best run of form in the club’s history, you have to hold your hands up, it’s unfortunate for us but there’s not a lot you can do about it.

“You can only play them twice and they’ve not beaten us, so we’re not a bad team.

“Barnsley’s [unbeaten] run, I don’t where it stands in terms of their history but it must be up there.

“Then you throw ours in there, which is December,” he added.

“It’s not bad, it just happens that there are other teams in the league [doing well].

“We talk about tracking points, if you look at other leagues [in the EFL], we would be there or thereabouts as well.

“It just shows that we’ve had a decent season, not an outstanding season, but a decent one.”

Ross knows full well a win against Walsall will make that argument far easier to make.