Can Sunderland beat the Curse of Christmas?

by Gary Emmerson

Gustavo PoyetIt is set in stone. Despite still having one game left to play before Santa Claus dons his red and white robe and begins his whistlestop tour of the globe, Sunderland can’t escape being the team which this year will have to defy the dreaded “Curse of Christmas” if they are to retain Premier League status come May.

Even victory over Norwich City at the Stadium of Light on Saturday would not spare Gus Poyet’s side a reprieve from being bottom of the table heading into the festive programme meaning history stands against Sunderland escaping the drop. In the Premier League era, only West Brom in 2004/05 have survived having being bottom on December 25, underlining the task in hand for the Black Cats.

A return of just nine points from 16 games (almost half of the season) doesn’t exactly suggest Sunderland will be following in his history-making footsteps of the Baggies. The problems had been brewing for some time, although this season’s problems can be attributed in no small part to the kamikaze management style of Paolo Di Canio and the sale of the club’s best assets during the summer.

There is no doubting that Sunderland have improved for the arrival of Poyet, and even during caretaker manager Kevin Ball’s brief period in the hot seat in bridging the gap between the club’s first ever foreign managers. What hasn’t improved, however, is the rate that points have been accumulated.

The fixture list hasn’t been kind – of eight home games, six have been against the so-called big six in Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham – so you could say the six points picked up at the Stadium of Light is actually more than might have been expected. Away from home, however, three draws is all the Black Cats have mustered.

The schedule from here on in, certainly on Wearside, is six-pointer after six-pointer, cup final after cup final and that will be the one crumb of comfort for Poyet and his backroom team. After all, Sunderland have enjoyed success in Capital One Cup games this season to progress to a semi-final with Manchester United following this week’s extra-time victory over Chelsea in the last eight. Now, the opportunity for Premier League wins are there – they just need to do it on the pitch in the league.

Decisions have not been helping either. While there is no denying Lee Cattermole and Andrea Dossena deserved their red cards in defeat at Hull, Wes Brown’s dismissal in another loss on the road at Stoke City was something of a joke. It infuriated Poyet so much he descended into a tantrum and coat throwing toddler. He was right though, it was a peach of a tackle and the red card effectively cost the chance of points. Unsurprisingly it was subsequently rescinded, but the points had gone.

What the Capital One Cup has delivered in kindness with home draws throughout the competition, fate has certainly conspired against Sunderland somewhat in terms of the Premier League fixture list. But the pressure is now on to deliver in the second half of the season. There is no margin for error now.

From the 22 remaining Premier League games, a haul of 31 points is needed to reach the so-called magical land that is 40 points. If they are to find that pot of gold, they need to turn an average points per game record from the 0.56 gained already into 1.40 over the next five months if they are to defy the Curse of Christmas. The question is whether or not they’ve left too much to do.

There are plenty of rivals still within sight or touching distance and seven wins (or the equivalent to make up 21 points) at home and a smattering of points on the road might just see them do it. It really will be a great escape act if it happens.

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