Sam Allardyce insists that Sunderland must ensure that they are still out of the relegation zone after this weekend’s clash at Stoke City.
A goalless draw against Arsenal yesterday was insufficient for Sunderland to create clear daylight with relegation rivals Newcastle and Norwich, yet the Black Cats at least moved above the latter on goal difference to hover just above the bottom three.
With Sunderland boasting a game in hand on Newcastle and a superior goal difference to both of their fellow drop contenders, the Black Cats are marginally in pole position among the trio to remain in the Premier League.
But boss Allardyce says Sunderland must remain in charge of their own fate on Saturday, when they travel to the Britannia Stadium, while Newcastle and Norwich face Crystal Palace and Arsenal respectively.
“Our destiny is in our own hands now, for the first time in many months, and there are only four games to go,” said Allardyce.
“We have to take control of that, starting at Stoke.
“And when we finish at Stoke, we’ve got to make sure we are still out of the bottom three.”
Finding the knack of registering clean sheets has been key to Sunderland moving out of the relegation zone after three shut-outs in the last four games – following a 16-match streak without one.
The central defensive partnership of Lamine Kone and Younes Kaboul, in particular, has vastly improved Sunderland’s resilience, with the Black Cats becoming the first side in 11 Premier League games to prevent Arsenal from scoring.
“Keeping clean sheets is where our safety really lies,” said Allardyce.
“We’ve done really well with clean sheets recently, and that has helped us claw our way out of the bottom three.
“We need to try to get another clean sheet next week and hopefully score a goal to win it if we can.
“My emphasis on the players keeping clean sheets has been unrelenting since I have been here.
“And the biggest disappointment of all has been the amount of clean sheets we have let slip.
“If we had done that better, we would already be safe.
“But now we are getting it right, and if we keep getting it right then we will be safe.”
Sunderland had opportunities to take all three points against the Gunners, with left-back Patrick van Aanholt hitting the post and striker Jermain Defoe seeing penalty appeals waved away after Per Mertesacker blocked with his arm.
But Allardyce was pleased that his side managed to overcome the nerves after Newcastle had moved level on points 24 hours earlier.
“It’s not as though we haven’t created chances,” added Allardyce.
“Patrick van Aanholt hit the post, the referee should have given a penalty – it was blatant, obvious, for me.
“He claims he sticks his arms out and turns his back, but when you’re trying to block a shot you’re not supposed to turn your back.
“He put his arm out, stopped a certain goal, and, for me, it was definitely, 100%, a penalty.
“If we had got it, that’s not to say we would have won – Arsenal might have come back – but who knows.
“But I’m really pleased with the level of performance given the pressure we were under.
“We overcame our nerves and started to pass the ball properly in the second half, and when we did that we caused Arsenal lots of problems.
“And overall, for 90 minutes, we defended superbly well.”