Reality has caught up quickly with Sunderland. When they followed up back to back wins with a home draw against Swansea City in January, they were eleventh. They had 29 points and getting the 10 points or so needed to guarantee safety from 14 remaining games seemed a formality. But the frustrations mounted up - an away defeat at Reading, a home draw against Fulham and then, crushingly, a 3-1 away defeat to QPR.
Perhaps Sunderland were unfortunate to hit Reading in their purple patch, individual sloppiness cost them against Fulham, and any side that concedes 30-yard strikes to both Andros Townsend and Jermaine Jenas - total Premier League goals between them in the previous four years: zero - can feel a little unlucky, but after 30 games a side has to stop blaming misfortune and examine itself. Both QPR goals, for instance, came because Sunderland were slow to close down: they put themselves in a position in which ill fortune could hurt them.
The home draw against Norwich, who played the last hour with ten men, was when panic really set in. Even the goal Sunderland managed in that game was the result of a generous penalty. With Wigan, Aston Villa and Southampton suddenly starting to pick up points the icy truth dawned; this was going to be a genuine relegation battle. Next two games: Manchester United and Chelsea. When Martin O'Neill was dismissed after a 1-0 defeat to United (a Titus Bramble own goal, which would feel like bad luck if it weren't so typical), it was really the Norwich game for which he was paying the price.
Paolo Di Canio, having replaced O'Neill, spoke after the defeat at Chelsea (an own goal and a shot that deflected in off Branislav Ivanovic - more misfortune) of the squad "not being the fittest", which was regarded in many quarters as being a moment of expediency, offering an easy excuse. That is probably a little unfair, for he deliberately stopped himself and clarified that they were "not unfit" -and his Swindon side was notable for its ability to keep going: fitness is something on which he clearly places great store.
Whether he can meaningfully improve Sunderland's fitness before the end of the season is debatable - and the worry is that additional training ends up wearying players before there can be a positive effect - but even if he can, there is unlikely to be any improvement for at least a couple of weeks. In a sense that is ideal, for Sunderland's season is more likely to be determined by the run of Aston Villa away and Stoke and Southampton at home than by the Newcastle game or the home fixture against Everton that follows it.
Eight points would probably be enough to see Sunderland safe - although there are no guarantees; realistically, that means beating Stoke and Southampton and picking up two draws elsewhere. If they could scrape a win in their next three games, that would be an enormous bonus. That's the rational way of looking at things but it's hard to remain rational when you've gone nine games without a win and you've sunk to the brink of the relegation zone (Sunderland are [2.82] to go down). Only goal difference keeps Sunderland out of the bottom three, and Wigan, a place below them, have a game in hand.
There are fundamental problems that no amount of fitness can cure. Partly it's a general sloppiness, and it is possible Di Canio can banish that. But most significant is the lack of goals. Sunderland have scored just 34 this season - the fourth worst tally in the division - and 11 of those have been scored by Steven Fletcher who will miss the rest of the season with injury.
There would, of course, be a fairy-tale element of Danny Graham could return from a knee injury to score his first Sunderland goal against the team he supported as a boy, but it's seven games and 13 years since Sunderland last won at St James' (they are [4.5] to win this year). The likelihood is that their recovery, if it is to happen, will not start for a couple of weeks at least.
Back a Newcastle clean sheet at [2.8]