Why Sunderland face the toughest run-in in League One and the reasons for optimism ahead of key tests

Now it really feels like the business end.

Tuesday, 9th March 2021, 10:00 am

At 7.45pm on Tuesday, in front of the Sky Sports cameras, at a venue where every game has felt mightily significant since Sunderland dropped into League One, the race for the top two will go into another gear.

In a week that will end with a Wembley final, the stakes have risen for the Black Cats.

Their form in recent weeks has been both welcome and crucial. Amid an injury crisis in defensive areas they have churned a seven-game unbeaten run that has cut the gap to the automatic promotion places. Their run-in means they needed it.

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Sunderland begin their run-in at Fratton Park on Tuesday night

The clash with Portsmouth begins a challenging final 12 games, in which Sunderland will face only four teams currently in the bottom half of League One.

One of those is Ryan Lowe's Plymouth Argyle, who won at the Stadium of Light earlier this season and have shown that while inconsistent, their attacking threat means they can take points off any side.

Soccerstats.com analyses each team's run-in by calculating the average points-per-game of the opponents they have left to play. Crucially, these are weighted to take into account home and away form, relevant to the fixtures left.

As the list below shows, Sunderland have the toughest run in of any team currently in the top ten.

Average PPG of opponents left to play

Hull City 1.47

Peterborough United 1.53

Lincoln City 1.41

Sunderland 1.57

Doncaster Rovers 1.42

Portsmouth 1.39

Accrington Stanley 1.50

Ipswich Town 1.13

Charlton Athletic 1.46

Oxford United 1.40

It's a reminder of how small Sunderland’s margin for error is.

Last month we outlined how 90 is the average number of points needed to win automatic promotion from League One. 92 is the golden number, an average of 2PPG over the course of the season and a tally with which no side has finished third in the last decade.

To hit 92 Sunderland will over their last 14 games need to land 35 points at an average of 2.5.

It's a daunting task, but there is reason for optimism.

Sunderland's record against the teams at the top of the table has this season been very good. In ten games against teams currently in the top ten, they have won six, drawn three and lost just one (against Portsmouth).

That leaves them with an average of 2.1 PPG in those fixtures so far.

Convincing wins over Doncaster Rovers and Lincoln City remain fresh in the memory, and key to Sunderland's prospects will be the return of a number of key players.

Particularly in defensive areas they have been short of options of late but at long last, the picture is easing.

By the end of this week Johnson expects Bailey Wright, Tom Flanagan and Conor McLaughlin all to have either returned to have competitive action or be on the brink of doing so.

Denver Hume is also making quick progress in his recovery from a hamstring injury, while Grant Leadbitter is expected to play through the pain barrier after recently dislocating his shoulder.

Johnson has long said that squad depth will be key and as the pressure rises, his options are increasingly strong.

Reaching the top two is a tall order for Sunderland, but an achievable one all the same. The hard work starts now.

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