Sunderland's relegation worries

Posted by Alistair Tweedale,

Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesFurther stumbles from Martin O'Neill's men could make for a nervewracking spring for Sunderland supporters.

For more or less the whole season, Sunderland have been hovering a short distance above the relegation places, never looking spectacular enough to move away and up the table, but also staving off the threat from the bottom with irregularly occurring wins punctuating their campaign. A run of five victories in eight games spanning across the weeks either side of Christmas had looked sufficient to dispel any relegation worries Martin O'Neill's side might have, but in going six games without a win since then, they are now on their worst run of form all season, and at just the wrong time.

It has been a lacklustre season for a lacklustre team. The dearth of ambition in their ranks was plain to see from a very early stage; they managed just six goals in their opening nine Premier League games, five of which were scored by Steven Fletcher whilst the other was an own goal. In that run of games, they only put together 13 shots on target - a rate of just 1.4 shots on target per game. It was little surprise then, that's statistically calculated characteristics designated no significant strengths to the Black Cats at the time. Though things have improved over the season, the only area in which the stats website ranks them as outstanding is in 'protecting the lead', whilst their weaknesses are considerably more abundant.

Concisely summing up a side's noticeable strengths and weaknesses is always going to be a tough job, but what is worrying for Sunderland is that very few would be able to point out many other ways in which they stand out from the crowd. They do not play an exciting brand of football and at times have defended cataclysmically. Few teams will ship a worse goal than the second Sunderland conceded at West Brom a few weeks ago, when Romelu Lukaku chased down an almost lost cause on the left of Sunderland's defence. Calamity struck Titus Bramble yet again as he came across to cover the caught-out Jack Colback, Bramble allowed Lukaku in behind, only for Simon Mignolet's attempted clearance to rebound off the striker and into the net. It was just another week for Sunderland; no one made a big deal of the loss. But two matches later and defeat at QPR might just have changed the tone on Wearside. Whilst the R's hit form, Aston Villa have won two of their last four and Wigan tend to put together fantastic runs in the latter part of the season when relegation looms, Sunderland are on a worse run than any other team in the division, as can be seen on the 'streaks' tab of WhoScored's Premier League page.

O'Neill had brought in Danny Graham to try and deflect his side's over-reliance for goals away from Steven Fletcher, who accounts for 11 of their meagre tally of 32 (34.4%) in the league this season. However, Graham's arrival - though of course not the reason for such a slump - has coincided with their terrible run. He is yet to find the net in his five games in Sunderland colours, and his team have in fact only avoided defeat once in those five matches - a 2-2 draw at home to Fulham in which Graham was the only player that O'Neill decided to withdraw as his side chased victory.

So, looking ahead, can the Black Cats turn their form on its head and survive? With 30 points and a six point lead over the sides in the relegation zone at this point in time, they are far from favourites for the drop. However, the run in they face could pose a problem that the likes of Villa and Wigan could be chomping at the bit to take advantage of. The cliche goes that there is 'no easy game at this stage in the Premier League season' and in Sunderland's case that might just be apt. Their run-in fixture list reads; Norwich (h), Man Utd (h), Chelsea (a), Newcastle (a), Everton (h), Aston Villa (a), Stoke (h), Southampton (h), Tottenham (a). Disregarding recent form, there would be hope for the Black Cats as surely they could scrape together the six or seven points that are likely to ensure survive. Notably, though, in the reverse fixtures against those nine teams, Sunderland managed only five points, their only win coming at Southampton.

It would be primitive to assume that in the unpredictable world of Premier League football results would just repeat themselves. But there is a genuine chance that Sunderland will lose five of those games and things could soon turn a nasty colour for the Black Cats. They have been inconsistent all season and their fans will be hoping Sunderland's changeable form rears its head in time to change their luck for the run-in. After threatening to drop into the relegation battle for a while, though, Sunderland seem to have joined the party just as it starts to get going.

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