THIS HAS been no false dawn from Adam Johnson.
After netting a hat-trick in last month’s 4-1 rout at Fulham, cynical concerns were immediately raised that the winger would be unable to replicate that performance on a consistent basis.
But the 26-year-old has proved those doubters wrong and what a timely difference those seven goals in seven games have made to Sunderland’s survival chances.
Johnson is unquestionably in the best spell of his 18-month stint at the Stadium of Light.
These are the performances which were expected of him when Martin O’Neill shelled out £10million and enthused Sunderland supporters like perhaps no other modern signing.
The Easington lad is thriving; enjoying his football and playing with a new-found freedom and confidence under Gus Poyet.
Now is the chance for Johnson to get his reward.
Roy Hodgson hasn’t had much cause to visit the Stadium of Light during his tenure.
Until the last couple of months, Sunderland’s players have struggled to prove themselves capable of thriving in the Premier League, let alone for England.
But Hodgson’s presence in the stands at tomorrow’s crunch clash with Hull City is evidence that Johnson is very much under consideration for the World Cup, particularly as next month’s friendly against Denmark is the final Wembley outing before the summer’s tournament.
A repeat of Johnson’s stunning display at St James’s Park last weekend will go a long way towards securing a place in the England squad for the first time since October 2012.
Gus Poyet will be longing for Johnson to turn on the style again too in another huge outing for the Black Cats.
Just under a fortnight ago, Poyet identified the back-to-back league outings against Stoke, Newcastle and Hull as the games which Sunderland’s survival chances hinged upon.
“Now or never” was Poyet’s message. It has very much been a case of “now”.
Six points from the first two steps on that journey have catapulted Sunderland up to 14th spot, but they desperately need to finish the job tomorrow.
A third successive victory would hand Sunderland some breathing space with the drop zone and that will be crucial ahead of the subsequent three games – daunting trips to Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool (providing the latter isn’t rearranged due to the FA Cup quarter-finals).
Steve Bruce’s return to the Stadium of Light is a golden opportunity for Sunderland too. While Hull have been a well-drilled, resolute outfit at the KC Stadium, they have been fragile on the road – just one victory and seven goals scored in 12 away games.
The big money January captures of Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long will improve Bruce’s goal threat and there were encouraging signs of the pair linking-up effectively in last weekend’s draw against Spurs.
And while there is a huge incentive for Sunderland to get three points tomorrow, the carrot is equally enticing for the Tigers after being caught up and overtaken by Bruce’s former employers.
Bruce, who will doubtless receive a none-too-friendly welcome, knows the importance of quietening the crowd and creating tension on the terraces by nullifying Sunderland during the opening half-hour.
As they did against Stoke, Sunderland must strive to overcome that strategy and look to get their noses in front early on.
That is where ex-Hull loanee Jozy Altidore will be invaluable.
Altidore needs to be the Trojan horse who opens the door to Johnson, Fabio Borini, Jack Colback and Ki Sung-Yueng by consuming the attention of Hull’s centre-halves and creating opportunities for others.
Even if he didn’t muster the goal that he so clearly craves, against Newcastle, Altidore was key in providing that attacking platform for Sunderland.
Although tomorrow’s game is unlikely to be anywhere near as open, Sunderland will need Altidore to bring others into play and get them in behind a Hull defence that will doubtless sit deep and look to soak up pressure.
Given Sunderland’s recent performances and the confidence which is clearly running throughout the team, you would back Poyet’s side to have the invention and ideas to do that.
After October’s derby triumph, Sunderland flopped at Hull the following week, albeit they were not helped by the indiscipline of Lee Cattermole and Andrea Dossena.
They can’t waste the derby bounce again.
Verdict: Home win
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