Sunderland boss Steve Bruce has challenged England midfielder Jordan Henderson to help fire the club back to winning ways.
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With Asamoah Gyan and Danny Welbeck having joined Fraizer Campbell on the casualty list, Bruce went into Saturday’s Premier League clash with Fulham without a single senior striker available, and even youngster Ryan Noble ruled out with a knee problem.
But where the gamble of playing midfielders Stephane Sessegnon and Steed Malbranque in advanced roles against Wigan a week earlier after Gyan and Welbeck had succumbed paid off handsomely in a 4-2 victory, a lack of firepower proved costly at the weekend.
Malbranque in particular passed up a gilt-edged opportunity and the visitors made the Black Cats pay as Simon Davies snatched a double after Gael Kakuta had opened the scoring to seal a 3-0 win at the Stadium of Light.
The defeat was Sunderland’s ninth in 11 league games and means they have taken just four of the last 33 points they have contested.
With no improvement on the injury situation expected before the end of the campaign, Bruce will tackle the final three games looking to his midfielders for inspiration in front of goal.
Henderson scored twice against Wigan to underline his potency, although the 20-year-old limped off with 15 minutes of Saturday’s game remaining, and the manager will keep his fingers crossed over a man he believes could provide a temporary solution to his problems.
Bruce said: "The one thing about him when he plays on the right, he does arrive in the box and it seems to give him a bit more licence to get forward.
"That suited him, and for him to score a couple of goals was terrific.
"That’s what he needs to improve – the kid knows that. The good thing about him is, as you have seen, when he does get there, he finishes. When he gets a chance, he can finish.
"We have to keep working on it, to arrive in the box and want to get in there. He can be a threat."
Despite their recent slump, the Black Cats remain six points clear of the drop zone with just nine left for which to play, and they are unlikely to be sucked back into the pack.
They head for Bolton next weekend before entertaining struggling Wolves, and then travel to bottom-of-the-table West Ham on the final day of the season.
While Bruce knows Mick McCarthy’s men and the Hammers in particular will be scrapping desperately for the points, he is happy enough with the way the fixture list has panned out.
He said: "We couldn’t have wished for a better run-in, even though they are big games because they are teams who are fighting for their lives.
"But we know against the teams we are playing in the next few weeks, we are capable of getting a result.
"I would rather be going to, no disrespect, the Reebok at Bolton or West Ham rather than Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, so we have got a chance.
"The one thing I know about the Premier League is it’s always a hard game. It doesn’t matter who you play against, you have to be at the top of your game."