WILL IT be third time lucky in the battle to remain in the Premier League, or will Sunderland finally have their fingers burnt after years playing with fire at the wrong end of the table?
After the euphoria of the Wear-Tyne derby was followed by the most feeble of collapses against Crystal Palace, many Sunderland supporters don’t know what to think.
It seems to have been like this all season; a campaign where convincing arguments could equally be made for the glass being half full or half empty.
The Gazette’s Chris Young considers three reasons for optimism and three reasons for pessimism heading into the home straight of the race to stay in the top flight.
THREE REASONS WHY SUNDERLAND WILL STAY UP:
1. Points on the board
Just two wins would take Sunderland to the 35-point mark, which has been widely tipped as the safety point in a particularly low-scoring bottom six this year.
Admittedly, after a measly five Premier League victories all season, it would be pleasantly surprising if the Black Cats suddenly won two of the last six games.
But do Sunderland even need that many?
That three-point buffer with the drop zone is a deceptively big one – albeit Leicester and Burnley both have the chance to take chunks out of it tomorrow – when no side in the bottom five has won more than twice in their last 10 games.
Are any of those teams suddenly going to win twice, let alone three times in the run-in? Sunderland were very much the exception last season.
If Dick Advocaat’s men can get a win and a draw or two over the run-in, that is likely to be sufficient.
Been there, done it, got plenty of t-shirts. For the likes of John O’Shea, Lee Cattermole and Seb Larsson, this is not their first relegation fight.
In each of the previous two seasons, they have helped to shepherd Sunderland from the jaws of doom to the pastures of safety.
That’s a vital asset to have.
Yes, Sunderland’s players demonstrated their mental fragility when they went one down against Crystal Palace, but in that final home game against Leicester, in particular, it will all come down to holding your nerve.
Sunderland’s players know what that pressure is like. Plenty in the ranks of newly-promoted trio Burnley, QPR and Leicester don’t.
Even Jermain Defoe, who is new to it, has the single-mindedness to focus simply on scoring, while he has been in sufficient high-stakes encounters before to be able to block out that stomach-churning anxiety.
3. The crowd
The strength of public opinion towards Gus Poyet undoubtedly began to ebb when he questioned the lack of patience on the terraces at the turn of the year.
Yes, moans and groans can resound around the Stadium of Light, with invariably every visiting manager stressing to his players the importance of keeping the fans subdued during the opening 20 minutes.
But after witnessing just 13 Premier League wins at home since March 2012, there has been plenty to moan about.
However, when this crowd sense it’s a make-or-break moment, all previous is forgotten and a wall of noise comes forth which makes an epic difference.
We saw it in the derby. We saw at the end of last season against Cardiff and West Brom.
When fellow strugglers Leicester visit Wearside next month for Sunderland’s final home game, that fan power will be required.
THREE REASONS WHY SUNDERLAND WILL GO DOWN:
1. Where are the goals coming from?
No Sunderland player has scored more than five times this season – a damning statistic which brings back stark memories of that 1996-97 relegation when Paul Steward and Craig Russell top-scored with four-a-piece.
Gus Poyet was unable to ever get the balance right in his attack after failing to solve the absence of Fabio Borini, while the January capture of Jermain Defoe regularly left Sunderland lopsided.
There has been a better shape to the side under Dick Advocaat, but still Sunderland don’t fashion chances for a poacher of Defoe’s calibre to profit from.
As good as that goal was in the Wear-Tyne derby, he ain’t gonna score too many more like that.
The return of just three goals in the last eight Premier League games – two of which have been scored by Defoe – is perhaps one reason behind Sunderland’s capitulations against Aston Villa and Crystal Palace.
Once they go behind, there isn’t the self-belief that they can score twice to win the game, so panic and desperation sinks in.
2. Defensive fragility
For much of the first half of the season, Sunderland appeared to be a well-drilled, unspectacular, hard-to-beat side.
The Southampton rout could be attributed to ‘one of those days’ as Gus Poyet’s decision to build from the back looked to be garnering gradual progress.
But that resolve has disappeared in 2015 and the lack of pace in Sunderland’s defence has been exposed ruthlessly.
Neither Aston Villa nor Crystal Palace had to do anything spectacular. They simply looked to get the ball in behind John O’Shea, and the pace of Gabby Agbonlahor and Yannick Bolasie did the rest.
Sunderland’s remaining opponents won’t need to search long and hard for a gameplan. It was one of the staggering elements of the derby that Newcastle sat so deep and never once put O’Shea on the back foot.
With Wes Brown likely to be sidelined for almost all of the remaining six games, Dick Advocaat has no other realistic options to change personnel at the back either.
3. The last two games
Sunderland took seven points from trips to Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea in the Great Escape, but don’t expect lightning to strike twice.
Dick Advocaat cannot – and doesn’t – count upon picking up points from those daunting trips to the Emirates and Stamford Bridge during the final week of the season.
But that leaves Sunderland facing a problem.
Come the last day, those involved in the relegation scrap will fight tooth and nail to get the points required – Burnley travel to an Aston Villa side that will surely be already safe, while Leicester and QPR face each other.
Sunderland cannot leave it that late. They need to secure their own destiny in the next four games against Stoke, Southampton, Everton and Leicester.
Can they handle that burden?