Black Cats' cup runs seem distant past

icon sunderlandoptimist31 March ~ If you're an optimist, games in hand resemble a gleaming chance of picking up points. Reality is often very different. Sunderland have three matches more to play than the other two teams in the Premier League relegation zone — in theory offering the chance of a jump to 13th place. Yet their last victory was on February 1 and they're at the bottom for some very good reasons. Sunderland have had numerous chances to drag themselves higher but failed to take any of them, and are now four points from safety. So tonight's visit of West Ham could define their season.

The side's excellent cup form took them to a valiant League Cup final defeat to Manchester City and then a dismal FA Cup sixth-round loss to Hull City. Those runs papered over gaping holes in the team's league form, however. Since going out of both competitions the feeling of deflation has been palpable. And it's getting worse.

While last Wednesday's defeat to Liverpool had its bright points, the previous loss to Norwich and goalless draw with Crystal Palace were grim. Manager Gus Poyet has done relatively well this season after inheriting the mess left behind by Paolo di Canio. Yet he lost a lot of goodwill by resting several first-team players in the quarter-final defeat to Hull, when a second trip to Wembley this season was on offer. The team can't score goals, netting only two in the last five games, and there are difficult matches ahead, not that any of them seem easy at the moment. The players now appear uninterested and complacent — unable and unwilling to do anything about what would be Sunderland's first relegation in eight years.

Steven Fletcher's injury-hit season is best summed up by a disgusting incident when he spat on a rickshaw driver's back. If Lee Cattermole isn't being booked for stupid fouls, he's gifting goal chances to the opposition. Jozy Altidore has lost all confidence and exhausted the patience of even the most understanding fan. Expensive Adam Johnson's brief flash of form disappeared as suddenly as it arrived. And Fabio Borini, our best player this season, is on loan from Liverpool. A double over Newcastle and a first cup final in 22 years injected much-needed positivity into the club, but that's fading and would all be undone if we went down.

Yet in some ways it's incredible that Sunderland still have a say in the relegation battle. During Di Canio's disastrous and damaging term in charge the club earned only one point from the first eight games of the season. After the win over Hull that took West Ham closer to safety last week, fans at Upton Park booed their team off and Sam Allardyce criticised the home supporters. His days at the club seem numbered. West Ham's fans have chanted Di Canio's name for manager. The volatile ex-Sunderland boss has also said that it's his "destiny" to manage the London club.

West Ham co-owner David Sullivan said he would never appoint the club's ex-player as boss until he renounces fascism, but the club retains a "Paolo Di Canio" hospitality lounge all the same. If West Ham's supporters and their former striker get their way they deserve each other. Sunderland fans wouldn't grumble about any victory tonight, however it comes. Ed Upright

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