Sunderland can cope without Craig Gardner, Steven Fletcher, Stephane Sessegnon

CATS ARE UP TO THE CHALLENGE: Carlos Cuellar

CATS ARE UP TO THE CHALLENGE: Carlos Cuellar

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CARLOS Cuellar is confident Sunderland can cope with the loss of key players in the club’s final two games of the season.

Craig Gardner’s red card against Stoke City on Monday night means the midfielder now joins leading scorers Steven Fletcher and Stephane Sessegnon as well as skipper Lee Cattermole in the roll call of major Sunderland players unavailable either through loss or suspension.

But Cuellar, who himself missed two months of the season with injury at the start of the year, is certain that the Black Cats can still perform impressively in games against Southampton and Spurs without their leading stars.

“It is always going to be a challenge but one that I definitely think we are up to,” he said.

“It is tough because the squad is small and we really cannot afford to lose anyone at this moment in time.

“But if you look at two of our very best wins of the season – Newcastle and Everton – we did it without our leading scorer Steven Fletcher, without our captain Lee Cattermole, and Craig Gardner was also suspended for those matches, if you remember.

“So we have shown we can cope with the loss of influential players and still go out and get excellent results.”

The loss of Fletcher, Sessegnon and Gardner is likely to be particularly difficult for Sunderland to cope with, as they are the club’s three leading goalscorers.

Fletcher, who has been sidelined with a foot injury injury since March, remains Sunderland’s leading goalscorer having found the net 11 times in the league in his debut season for the club.

Sessegnon has scored seven but was coming into a rich vein of form under Paolo Di Canio – scoring two goals in his last three games – before a red card at Villa 10 days ago brought his season to a premature close.

And Gardner, who has contributed six goals in the league, eight overall, has proven to be a penalty spot king this season and that ruthless efficiency from 12 yards will be missed if Sunderland are awarded a spot kick either against the Saints or at Spurs.

But centre-half Cuellar believes that the remaining players will rise to the occasion – just like they did when Sunderland were reduced to 10 men on Monday and fought back to claim a point against Stoke.