With the final few weeks of the season remaining Sunderland are staring down a black hole heading straight to the Championship, with its threats of cold mid-week matches, and the possibility of us all having to actually spend some time in Doncaster. Let's take a look at who else is in danger, who Sunderland need to watch out for, and who they should be looking to catch.
Newcastle 13th 36pts
Remaining Fixtures: Sunderland (H), West Brom (A), Liverpool (H), West Ham (A), QPR (A), Arsenal (H)
We'll start with out nearest and dearest, and our rivals in this weekend's Tyne-Wear derby. Newcastle have struggled to carry on the excellent work they did last season, and have grossly underachieved in 2012-13. However, last Sunday's last-gasp win against Fulham has put them in a very comfortable position. While Europa League commitments could distract them if they manage to overturn the 3-1 deficit to Benfica, with a six point cushion, and with Papiss Demba Cisse starting to find goals again, the Magpies should find the points they need to stay up comfortably.
Norwich 14th 35pts
Remaining Fixtures: Arsenal (A), Reading (H), Stoke (A), Aston Villa (H), West Brom (H), Man City (A)
If we're looking for teams coming into the run-in in bad form, look no further than Norwich. One win in 15 league games have left them plummeting down the table and increasingly looking over their shoulders at teams below them. A lack of attacking intent has been a problem for the Norfolk side of late, as they've struggled to find goals. Luckily for them, they're defensively very solid, particularly at home, with Sebastian Bassong in imperious form for most of the season. They've still got to play three of their relegation rivals (including Reading at home), and they have a pretty solid cushion at the moment. The Canaries have drawn 14 games this season, more than any other team, so I predict they'll 0-0 there way to safety in the dullest, yet most effective, way imaginable.
Stoke 15th 34pts
Remaining Fixtures: Man Utd (H), QPR (A), Norwich (H), Sunderland (A), Tottenham (H), Southampton (A)
Now we come to another team in pretty horrendous form. Stoke, like Norwich, have only won one game in 2013 and have looked devoid of any flair, purpose or attacking quality. Defeat to Aston Villa at the weekend has left them right in the relegation fight and, worryingly for them, it doesn't look as if Tony Pulis has the answers, with the team looking incredibly one-dimensional. To top it all off, most of their 'winnable' games come away from home (QPR, Sunderland, Southampton), where they've struggled all season. With two of their remaining home games coming against Man Utd and Spurs, it puts a lot of pressure on them to beat Norwich at the Britannia. The positives for Stoke is that they've picked up points earlier in the season, and if they do win that Norwich game and find a point or two from elsewhere, they should be okay. However, with the form they're on, this is a team Sunderland should be looking to catch.
Aston Villa 16th 33pts
Remaining Fixtures: Fulham (H), Man Utd (A), Sunderland (H), Norwich (A), Chelsea (H), Wigan (A)
Villa are probably the most naturally talented team of all those left in the relegation battle. With Christian Benteke leading the line and promising youngsters like Andreas Weimann, Matthew Lowton and Ashley Westwood, the Midlands club probably shouldn't be in the position they're in. If it wasn't for a lack of experience and defensive frailties they would be in a comfortable mid-table position by now. They've hit form at a good time, winning three out of their last four, and they have the easiest run-in of all the relegation battlers. All this sound pretty good for the Villains, but where might things go wrong? Well, as mentioned earlier, defensively they're pretty rocky. Only Reading have conceded more goals this season, and star defender Ron Vlaar is struggling to find full form after coming back from injury. While they've produced some excellent performances this season, such as away at Anfield, they're also equally capable of being just as poor, losing home games to Wigan and Southampton, and being thrashed 8-0 by Chelsea back in December. However given their run-in I'd be willing to bet Villa will find the couple of wins they need to stay up.
Wigan 18th 30pts
Remaining Fixtures: Man City (A), West Ham (A), Tottenham (H), West Brom (A), Swansea (H), Arsenal (A), Aston Villa (H)
What is there to say about Wigan? Like Bear Grylls or Courtney Love they continue to survive from quite inexplicable, desperate positions year after year. They're already starting another of their late season surges too, going unbeaten in the last three, and acquiring an FA Cup semi-final place by hammering Everton at Goodison Park. Will they do it again? Well, not necessarily. Wigan's revitalization in the latter stages of last season was more down to their switch to 3-4-3, and with no extreme tactical change seeming likely, the Latics could be too predictable in the final few matches. Furthermore with an FA Cup tie coming up with Millwall, and a strong possibility of an FA Cup final place, they might be distracted by other commitments. On the other hand they're a technically gifted side who have shown spirit by the bucket load this season, such as when they grabbed a late equalizer against QPR at the weekend, despite being poor throughout. The Latics have an actual goalscorer this season too in Arouna Kone, while Paul Scharner has done an excellent job since his return on loan. They also have a game on hand on their rivals, a winnable one at home to Swansea. If Wigan can produce another late surge as they have in the past two seasons, they'll stay up comfortably. If not, they might find that their Premier League luck has run out.
QPR 19th 24pts
Remaining Fixtures: Everton (A), Stoke (H), Reading (A), Arsenal (H), Newcastle (H), Liverpool (A)
QPR are seven points from safety, have only won 4 games all season, make horrific individual mistakes in every game, and have a squad that's rumoured to be littered with different factions and in-fighting. So why even include them in this list? Well there's one factor that could just drag them out of it by the skin of their teeth. Harry Redknapp has done this kind of thing before, leading
Southampton Portsmouth to Premier League safety from a desperate position in the past. Furthermore in 2008, Fulham came back from an equally low down to stay up on the last day, so why can't QPR? Well, for starters, Fulham had a much easier run-in that the Hoops. QPR effectively have to win five out of their last six games just to put themselves in contetention, and with Everton, Arsenal and Liverpool still to play that looks incredibly unlikely. Unfortunately for the West London club they'll be no magic and miracles at Loftus Road this season and they're effectively down already. Nothing can save them now, and Redknapp will end the season seen less as Harry Houdini; and more as Tommy Cooper.
Reading 20th 23pts
Remaining Fixtures: Liverpool (H), Norwich (A), QPR (H), Fulham (A), Man City (H), West Ham (A)
Not a chance in hell of staying up...
Sunderland 17th 31pts
Remaining Fixtures: Newcastle (A), Everton (H), Aston Villa (A), Stoke (H), Southampton (H), Tottenham (A)
So where does all this leave Sunderland then? With Reading and QPR all but down there's just one place up for grabs, and the Black Cats will presumably be fighting it out with Villa, Wigan and Stoke for that final spot. It doesn't help that Sunderland's next two games are very tricky ones to Newcastle and Everton, which means that we must look to take most of our points from the three games following. With O'Neill gone, Sunderland's survival chances now rest on the shoulders of Paolo Di Canio. If he can have an immediate impact on the team, and produce the fight and spirit lacking under O'Neill, then the Black Cats might just be okay. Of course there are still question marks over whether the Italian can lead a team so lacking in fitness to safety, especially with Di Canio's emphasis on pressing and having high levels of stamina, but if the squad can continue to produce the kind of performance they did during the first half at Stamford Bridge, then Ellis Short's gamble to appoint the fiery Italian will have paid of. Sunderland probably need at least 8 points from their last six games to stay up, and they're capable of doing it with the fixtures remaining. I can't say with any certainly what's going to happen, but what I can say is that it's going to be a very tight one.