It’s not unusual that a mainstay top-flight club will sleep its way through the Premier League season only to wake in early spring and find itself locked in a relegation battle. This year two clubs, Aston Villa and Sunderland, find themselves in this undesirable predicament. But whereas Villa have come to life through stunning offensive performances by Christian Benteke, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann as well as back-to-back wins against Reading and QPR, Sunderland shows no signs of waking from their slumber.
Despite hovering around mid-table for a good portion of the season, there’s been little to cheer about for Martin O’Neill’s side. The biggest positives have come from off-the-pitch acquisitions in the summer and January transfer markets where the Black Cats snapped up Steven Fletcher from Wolves and Danny Graham from Swansea City. Both strikers seemed to be promising buys for a club desperate for strikers to relieve Stephane Sessegnon’s scoring burden.
Fletcher marked his debut at Sunderland with a fantastic double to earn his side a 2-2 draw at the Liberty Stadium. As the Fall wore on, however, the goals were harder to come by for the 26 year old, eventually prompting O’Neill’s coup of Graham this winter. But in six appearances the Gateshead-born striker has yet to open his scoring account for his new club. This drought has contributed to a run of form that has seen the Black Cats go winless in their last seven matches, taking only three points of the last 21 available.
The barren streak has dropped Sunderland to 15th in the table on 31 points, just four points clear of the drop zone. Things turned from bad to worse this week for the North-East outfit when Fletcher was ruled out for the rest of the season (along with Lee Catermole) after suffering ankle ligament damage while on international duty with Scotland on Friday. With the former Wolves man sidelined the goal-scoring burden falls squarely on Graham. “I think Danny is a couple of games away from getting a good run,” said Adam Johnson. “It’s important someone gets the goals with Fletch missing because we haven’t scored that many or created many chances.”
When addressing the need to take chances therein lies yet another problem for Sunderland - a brutal final schedule that’s unlikely to be full of opportunities. With matches against in-form Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and Everton still to come, not to mention a Tyne-Wear derby away at Newcastle and six-pointer clashes with Southampton and Aston Villa, things look bleak for the Wearsiders.
So bleak, in fact, that even non-Sunderland supporters will feel the pangs of doom when reviewing the Black Cats predicament. It sounds ridiculous to say that it will take a miracle for a club outside of the relegation zone to avoid the drop but when it comes to Martin O’Neill’s side, that’s exactly the case.
With a poor run of form, low morale, an absence of dependable strikers and a fiercely difficult remaining schedule, the writing is on the wall. Sunderland, my friends, is getting relegated.