Steve Bruce, the Sunderland manager, admits he cannot quite believe he is looking over his shoulder as he prepares for the final seven games of the Premier League campaign.
Sunderland looked poised to mount a genuine challenge for European qualification when they reached 37 points after a 2-1 win at Blackpool on 22 January. However, their seven league fixtures since have seen them collect just a single point and they have slipped from top-six contention to 12th place and the fringes of the fight for top-flight survival.
There is no need for panic on Wearside just yet with Bruce's men currently six points clear of the drop zone and with a far less taxing, on paper at least, fixture list than the recent run, which included games with Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City.
The manager remains confident his aim for the season of a top-10 finish is still achievable, but he is equally aware of the consequences should his players fail to rediscover their early-season form, starting with Saturday's home game against West Bromwich Albion.
Bruce said: "I couldn't have imagined a couple of months ago just how difficult it would be to reach 40 points. However, we are where we are and we have still got six weeks of the season to go and a lot left to play for.
"We have only picked up one point from our last seven games, so we have still got work to do. We are sitting in 12th position and if I am honest, yes, looking over our shoulders. We are having our worst spell of the season right now and we have to overcome it.
"All sides have bad spells – whether it be Chelsea, Man United, Arsenal or Man City or anybody. This is the most competitive the Premier League has ever been and it's made it a fantastic league this year, for the neutral especially.
"Of course, there have been ups and downs here like anywhere else and at the moment, we are in the middle of a horrible run. But I still really believe we can cement a place in the top 10. If you look at our run-in, it looks good on paper for us and so it is entirely in our hands."
Bruce may not be able to believe it, but Anton Ferdinand has cautioned his team-mates that, having taken just a single point since they won at Blackpool, they have to be well aware of the threat of relegation.
Ferdinand said: "We have to be looking over our shoulders now, definitely, because the league is that tight.
"But it is down to us as players to get back to winning ways. We need to look at ourselves, nobody else but ourselves, and we are going to have to do that next weekend at home to West Brom, a team who are fighting for their lives. There are not any excuses. We all have to look at ourselves, get on with training this week and make sure we are going into Saturday positive and on the front foot."
Sunderland's final seven games include five against teams below them in the table, although they are awaiting news on injuries which could deny them the services of Titus Bramble and Fraizer Campbell for the remainder of the season.
Ferdinand said: "West Brom next weekend is going to be difficult. By no means is it going to be an easy game. They are fighting for their lives which, if anything, makes it even more difficult. They will be willing to run the extra mile, and if we don't do that, we will be turned over."Reuse content