Craig Gardner issues rallying cry to Sunderland ahead of nightmare run of fixtures

Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United on the horizon for struggling Black Cats

The Sunderland midfielder Craig Gardner has issued a rallying cry to his team-mates to save their season from developing into another relegation fight ahead of a daunting run of five games that includes the Premier League's top three.

Sunderland moved to within a point of the drop zone following their defeat to Norwich on Sunday, despite a reinvigorated second-half display. Gardner's goal was the catalyst for a fightback that Martin O'Neill hopes will be the turning point in their disappointing campaign. They have won just twice in their last 22 Premier League games and face Chelsea at the Stadium of Light on Saturday, a trip to Old Trafford to face Manchester United a week on December 15 and then face champions Manchester City on Boxing Day.

Sunderland spent £22m during the summer to sign Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson and are unlikely to be major players when the transfer window opens next month.

O'Neill knows he must get more from the personnel at his disposal and Gardner said: "We need to stand up and be counted and take our chances. We can't keep doing this after games, saying, 'It'll come, it'll come'. We need to make it come.

"We're frustrated but we have a tough game coming up against Chelsea now and we need to take hold of games from the start, not just from the start of the second half. We've just got to take our chances because it's taking us a while to get into games.

"We started off slowly again against Norwich and found ourselves two goals down. Not many teams play Norwich off the park at home, which is what we did in the second half. It's there, we can do it but we need to do it from start to finish. We have to do it now, pick ourselves up and have to do it. There's no excuses any more. We know we can do it. If we play like that second half from start to finish, then we'll win games comfortably. That's what we need to do.

"I can't explain it. It's like it took the goal to really lift us but we can't do that. We need to be lifted from the start. We're going into games that we need to win and making it hard for ourselves. In the second half at Norwich we deserved to win the game. That's maybe the sign of a side that is finding it slowly, but surely, although we need to find it quickly."

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