Sam Allardyce's prophecy is coming true '“ just not for Sunderland
At the start of March, Sam Allardyce prophesied that one of the three teams fighting for the remaining spot in the Premier League would string together a run of positive results during the run-in.
Leicester did it last year, Sunderland the year before that... and the year before that, to save their skins just as the jaws of the abyss towards the Championship were opening.
Sunderland should be sitting prettily just above the relegation zone again; reflecting on the need for one last push to secure their top-flight status and the subsequent pay day stemming from next season’s television deal.
It’s far from far-fetched to suggest that Allardyce’s men ought to have banked 12 points from their last four games – a minimum of 10, certainly, after victory was well within their grasp at Southampton, Newcastle and again during Saturday’s one-sided stalemate against West Brom.
Instead, Sunderland have only registered four from four. If the Black Cats are relegated, that’s what’s crippled them, with Norwich City the side who have fulfilled Allardyce’s crystal ball prediction.
Suddenly, from a sinking ship who hadn’t tasted Premier League success January 2, Norwich have taken seven points out of a possible nine and now surely only require two more victories to top the mini-league above the two North East clubs.
Considering the Canaries face sinking Crystal Palace and Sunderland in their next two games, the relegation battle could be decided within a fortnight.
A failure to convert the glut of chances against West Brom and remain on Norwich’s coat-tails, has suddenly made Sunderland’s trip to Carrow Road in 12 days time a must-win.
The phrase ‘must-win’ has become over-used, particularly when it is bandied around when only a handful of games have been played.
But it’s difficult to argue against it when applied to the Canaries clash, particularly as Sunderland will have to de-rail Leicester’s title bid to come away with anything from the Stadium of Light this coming weekend.
Yes, Sunderland still boast a game in hand on Alex Neil’s men, but four points is a big buffer at this stage and not a great deal healthier than the gulf facing second-bottom Newcastle who are already being written off.
Do Sunderland have the capabilities to prevail in the hot-house awaiting them in Norfolk on that Saturday lunchtime?
On ability and recent performances, unquestionably.
It’s tough to criticise a team who are clearly bursting every sinew and mustered 22 efforts on goal against a West Brom side who were indebted to the heroics of keeper Ben Foster.
It wasn’t pretty at times, yet was it ever going to be against a Tony Pulis side?
Sunderland were forced to deliver far too many high balls towards Jermain Defoe, who actually did an excellent job in holding it up in isolation against the Baggies’ defenders.
But, while it might have been predictably ugly and lacked an abundance of free-flowing football against a team who fielded four centre-halves and four central midfielders, Sunderland still created... a lot.
Fabio Borini’s claim afterwards that Sunderland carved out sufficient clear-cut chances to win two games wasn’t an exaggeration. With a splash of fortune, Allardyce’s men would have coasted to victory.
But Sunderland’s biggest issue is the absence of a winning habit.
For all performance levels have improved significantly since the arrival of the January recruits, Allardyce’s men have still only won one of their last seven when there hasn’t been a poor display anywhere in that run of games.
It wasn’t just Foster.
There was a tentativeness in Sunderland’s finishing – Defoe and Borini both guilty – when one goal would surely have been sufficient to register all three points.
Many supporters pointed to Allardyce’s reluctance to introduce attack-minded midfield replacements from the bench to get that elusive breakthrough, when Sunderland were fielding a pair of protectors in Yann M’Vila and Jan Kirchhoff.
It was an understandable criticism of the Sunderland boss, particularly when Allardyce’s substitutions have raised question marks previously this season.
But Sunderland still mustered a couple of golden opportunities in the last 10 minutes, while Dame N’Doye had a goal ruled out for offside in stoppage time.
The finishing was the bigger issue than the personnel.
The only solace was a first clean sheet since November, although Sunderland aren’t going to be coming up against teams with such negative attacking ambitions in the final seven games.
Ending a sequence without a shut-out which had stretched for 16 games should at least inject some confidence into Sunderland’s defensive ranks.
But a point just wasn’t enough for the Black Cats.
As Norwich showed with that stoppage time winner to leave Tyneside reeling, the team that suddenly discovers the knack of registering three points at this stage, is invariably the one that survives.
If Sunderland are relegated, then there will be far bigger factors than the results over the last month – poor leadership and recruitment chief amongst them.
Yet in the short-term, Allardyce’s men will only have themselves to blame for four games which should have brought so much more.