Tony Pulis has admitted that Stoke City's fight to stay in the Premier League has turned into "a five-game season", after defeat at home against Manchester United stretched their dismal run to only one win in 14 matches and deepened relegation fears.
With Sunderland winning at Newcastle United, Stoke have dropped to 16th place and are just three points above the bottom three having played two games more than Wigan Athletic.
Confidence is brittle among a group of players who have collected one point from a possible 21, although Pulis has urged his team to erase that sequence from their minds ahead of the run-in. Stoke travel to Queens Park Rangers on Saturday and host Norwich the following weekend. They then have a potentially pivotal away fixture at Sunderland, a home game against Tottenham Hotspur and a trip to Southampton on the final day.
"I've spoken to the players and it's a five-game season – we've got Manchester United out of the way," said Pulis, who dismissed a report that he was at risk of being sacked if Stoke were heavily beaten here. "There is eight, maybe nine, teams that are in the scrap. We've just got to make sure that the season really starts for us now and it's very important that you remain positive with it. I still say [we need] 40 points."
The worry for Stoke is that three of their remaining five games are away, where they have won only one of their past 25 Premier League matches across this season and last. Their home form, which in the past has been so crucial to their success in the Premier League, has also deserted them.
United's victory, courtesy of an early goal from Michael Carrick and a Robin van Persie penalty, means that Stoke have won only one of their past eight league games at the Britannia Stadium.
"We gave two sloppy goals away," Pulis said. "The first goal [from Van Persie's corner] killed us. It was a poor goal to concede. If Andy Wilkinson stays on his feet [on the second goal] and doesn't give the penalty away … You saw the way United celebrated, so you knew how important it was to them.
"We just haven't had the breaks and this is what happens in runs like this. The most important thing is that you all stay positive, [even] if it's difficult to do that, and focus. What's gone is gone. The important thing is the next game."