Sunderland boss Steve Bruce is backing his players to drag themselves out of relegation trouble.
The Black Cats have slipped to within six points of the Barclays Premier League drop zone after a dreadful run of eight games without a win. Indeed, their recent results have left them at the foot of the form guide with current bottom three Wigan, Wolves and West Ham all having fared significantly better.
Bruce's men face all three sides, as well as 16th-placed Birmingham during their six-game run-in to the end of the season, and while he knows none of them will be push-overs, he is confident the Wearsiders can rediscover their touch after taxing run of fixtures. He said: "It's easier on paper - but you don't win football matches on paper."
He added: "I knew we had a particularly difficult run in February and March - we had the top six and it doesn't come any more difficult than that when you have got Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City, all of them to play in successive weeks with a depleted squad.
"However, we have got six games left, we have got on paper a fantastic-looking run-in. It's up to us. I know we are capable of winning two or three of those. If we win two or three of those games, we could finish in the top 10, which was always our aim."
Sunderland set out at the start of the season targeting that top-half finish, something they last achieved in the Premier League in 2001, when they ended the campaign in seventh place, just as they had done 12 months earlier.
But a return of 37 points from their first 24 games left them firmly in the race for European qualification with a top-six finish a distinct possibility. However, Darren Bent's shock £24million departure for Aston Villa in January, coupled with an ongoing injury crisis, has been followed by a dramatic change of fortune.
Bruce always knew a run of games which included clashes with Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City would test his squad, but the fact is they have won just once since Bent packed his bags - at Blackpool on January 22 - and have collected only one point from the last 24 on offer.
The Black Cats still enjoy a healthy cushion over the chasing pack, although that could soon disappear if they do not start to add to their tally. But while Bruce recognises the gravity of the situation, he is continuing to look upwards rather than anxiously over his shoulder. He said: "We can't take anything for granted. We have 38 points, so we are not safe.
"I don't think 38 points is going to be enough this year when you look at the teams at the bottom and what's happening. But my thing is you have always got to try to be positive. We have got to say, 'Okay, we have got six games left now, let's make sure that all the hard work we have done, we don't just let it fizzle out and go into a damp squib. We must respond in the right way."
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