Nervous times ahead for Sunderland
STEVE BRUCE admits that despite owner Ellis Short spending millions of pounds to establish Sunderland in a position of Premier League safety, they are facing a third successive battle against relegation. Saturday's 2-0 defeat at Arsenal extended their winless league run to 13 games and Bruce regards Sunderland as one of the teams looking nervously over their shoulder towards the bottom three. After being unveiled as the Wearsiders' boss, Bruce outlined his working brief from Short and club chairman, Niall Quinn. They don't want to be in the position they were in at the end of last season, they want the club to progress and not be in and around the relegation fodder, he explained last June. Early-season victories over Liverpool and Arsenal suggested that Bruce might over achieve on his firstseason target to establish the club in mid-table. After those victories there was even talk on Wearside of a challenge for a European place. But Sunderland's faltering form in the last four months has seen them outstripped by Stoke and Birmingham, neither of whom are troubled by thoughts of the drop. Sunderland now have a run of games that offer them an opportunity to ensure they are in a similarly comfortable position long before their final game of the season at Mick McCarthy's Wolves. The Black Cats face Fulham at the Stadium of Light on Sunday to kick-off a period of home matches that includes encounters with Birmingham and thirdfrom- bottom Bolton Wanderers. All three fixtures hand Sunderland excellent chances to collect maximum points but, considering their current form, it would be misleading to label any game as winnable.' After suffering a narrow defeat at Arsenal Bruce praised his players for their never-say-die approach and urged them to take that spirit into their remaining 12 games. We need to rediscover the form we showed at the start of the season and we have been a lot better over the last four or five games. I am convinced that, if we play like we did against Arsenal, we will be fine, he said. We had a wonderful start (to the season), the best this club has had in 35 years. I think that has made our current situation seem worse. We had a big piece of luck with the beach-ball incident against Liverpool but I don't think we have had any since. We will stick at it. Bruce was left to rue missed goalscoring opportunities by Kenwyne Jones and Darren Bent at the Emirates and admitted: We had three or four good chances against Arsenal and you don't normally get that. But we didn't put any of them away. You have to stick them away against Arsenal. When things are going against you, you work even harder, if that's possible. But I do believe it makes you stronger in the long run. I am trying to stay positive. We have been struck down by injuries and suspensions, but I don't want to keep making excuses. I know for a fact we are a better team with John Mensah and Craig Gordon playing, with Cattermole and Cana in the centre of midfield. We are trying to become an established Premier League club but we have only been out of the Championship two years. Wigan have been in the Premier League five years, Bolton ten. That is what we are trying to achieve and that's why I came here, I wanted that challenge and I'm still relishing it. But you don't go from finishing fifth from bottom to pushing for Europe, that's unrealistic. I think every team in the bottom ten is looking nervously over their shoulder. We are not the only ones. We've got to be realistic. The owner has spent a lot of money, he backed me in the summer and he backed the manager before me to try to ensure we are not involved in a relegation battle. But you have to remember we have finished fifth from bottom two years in a row. Bruce questioned the late penalty awarded by referee Steve Bennett. When I see the penalty Arsenal got at the end, which was an outrageous decision, do I think Benty should have gone down (when challenged by Mikael Silvestre). Do I think we would have got a penalty even if he did I'll let you answer that one. I'm already in enough trouble with the FA. All I'll say is it was a big call. I'm not sure if it was in or outside the area, but he was the last defender and if Benty went down¦ He has been honest because he wants to go on and score and he has stayed on his feet.
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