Sunderland v West Bromwich Albion: Preview
Sunderland boss Steve Bruce has warned his players they are firmly engaged in a battle for Barclays Premier League survival as they enter the final seven games of the season.
However, he remains confident that they can still achieve their aim of securing a first top-10 finish since the Peter Reid era.
The Black Cats head into Saturday's clash with West Brom scarcely able to believe they have slipped to the fringes of the relegation battle after amassing 37 points from their first 24 league fixtures.
However, a run of six defeats in their last seven games and a return of a solitary point has left them in 12th place and just six points clear of the drop zone.
Asked if he considers the club to be in a relegation fight, Bruce said: "Yes. We would be naive if we didn't think we are not in there now.
"But I don't want to talk about it, I would rather think if we win on Saturday, we could go seventh.
"That's how crazy it is, it's an unbelievable season in respect of that.
"We have not talked about it at all. It's the first time in seven months we have been outside the top 10, and we have had a particularly difficult run.
"We have now got seven games left and all to play for, and the run of games we have got, hopefully we are capable of winning two or three of those.
"If we win two or three of those, then we are still on course for what we are trying to achieve."
For so much of the campaign, Sunderland were considered genuine contenders for European qualification, something they have never before achieved via the league.
A more circumspect Bruce has only ever talked about ending the campaign in the top half of the table, although having just missed out on that in his first season at the helm, he insists the club's recent history means not reaching that target would not necessarily represent failure.
He said: "I wouldn't say failure. If you look, we have only been in the top 10 twice in 50 years, so I don't know if it would be a failure, but it has been the aim.
"That has been my job, to try to get us into the top 10. That has been my remit and we are still on course at the minute.
"But we are finding it very, very tough."
The Black Cats have found life particularly difficult in recent weeks as the fixture list pitched them into battle with the likes of Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City with injuries once again depriving the manager of key players.
Bruce lost two more bodies - striker Fraizer Campbell and defender Titus Bramble - on the eve of last weekend's 5-0 drubbing at Manchester City, and while the forward was hoping to be given the all-clear to resume training by his specialist this afternoon, the defender seems certain to be sidelined for several weeks.
Sunderland will, however, have skipper Lee Cattermole, defender Michael Turner and striker Danny Welbeck available for a run-in during which they will face five of the eight sides currently below them.
Welbeck is likely to start alongside Asamoah Gyan on Saturday as Bruce abandons the 4-5-1 system he has had little choice but to employ since the striker damaged a knee a week or so after Darren Bent's departure for Aston Villa.
West Brom head coach Roy Hodgson has admitted he may have to fight to hold on to star striker Peter Odemwingie during the summer.
The Nigerian forward has scored 10 goals so far this season, the second most of any player in a bottom-half Premier League team.
His performance during Albion's 2-1 win over Liverpool was particularly eye-catching, as although he failed to score, his pace and skill led him to be brought down for both penalties.
Hodgson paid tribute to Odemwingie, and was asked if he would have to brace himself for offers for the 29-year-old later in the year.
"Perhaps, but I'll worry about that when the time comes," he said.
"Whatever happens after the season finishes I'll concern myself with at that time.
"Peter's been an excellent signing for the club.
"I knew of him at Fulham, when I was working there he was on our scouting radar.
"We were interested in him, but didn't need a centre forward at the time."
Hodgson believes that no matter how many goals Odemwingie scores this season, he will be judged by how the team performs as a whole.
The manager continued: "He'll be pleased with his season so far, but I hope he's going to agree with me that the only way he can really be satisfied is if he does well for his club and his club stays in the league."
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