IT’S THOROUGHLY ludicrous to be labelling any game in September as a “six-pointer”.
Even if Sunderland succumb at The Hawthorns tomorrow, relegation will not be a certainty, however dramatic the wave of doom which such a result would prompt.
But even at this tender stage of the campaign, this is a game which harbours a definite magnitude, particularly given the following two fixtures for each side.
While Sunderland face back-to-back Stadium of Light encounters against table-topping Liverpool and Manchester United, the Baggies also tackle the reigning Premier League champions before entertaining Arsenal.
For the losers this weekend, there is the very real prospect that they could be entering the second international break without a league win to their name.
In terms of sheer confidence and the need to inject some belief that Paolo Di Canio’s transformation is on the right track, Sunderland can ill-afford to be winless or cast adrift that deep into the campaign.
Whether the Black Cats can avoid such a scenario, will depend largely on their defence.
Tomorrow pits the Premier League’s lowest scorers – West Brom only broke their duck with a stoppage time leveller at Fulham last weekend – against the top flight’s leakiest defence, with Sunderland having conceded eight in their first four games, including six in the last two.
While Sunderland have only managed three goals, there were at least signs of promise in the attacking department in the second half against Arsenal last Saturday, while the strike pair of Steven Fletcher and Jozy Altidore harbours the potential for goals.
Defensively though, Sunderland were still perilously brittle against the Gunners.
The return of John O’Shea – likely to be at the expense of Valentin Roberge – should help matters, with the skipper the organisational presence in the back four.
Sunderland missed O’Shea last weekend, particularly in the first half when Mesut Ozil was able to prey on the gaping holes between the centre-halves and full-backs.
But despite West Brom’s scoring problems, Sunderland’s defence will come under pressure at a hostile Hawthorns tomorrow, particularly if Stephane Sessegnon is given a chance to prove a point against his former employers.
With Shane Long and Matej Vydra both likely to miss out through injury, Baggies boss Steve Clarke must choose whether to maintain the front partnership of Nicolas Anelka and Victor Anichebe or introduce Sessegnon after the £6million man’s work permit was finally granted on Wednesday.
While Sunderland supporters know how fickle Sessegnon’s displays can be, they also know that he can be unplayable on his day and he will surely be motivated for his West Brom debut, especially after Di Canio’s comments following his departure.
It is not just the back four’s responsibility to contain West Brom’s attacking threat though.
It is perhaps too soon to throw Lee Cattermole straight into the starting line-up, even if the transformation in his stock has been dramatic over the last fortnight.
A place among the substitutes is a more likely scenario for Cattermole, with Craig Gardner partnering Ki Sung-Yeung in the middle of the park.
Gardner changed the game against Arsenal by providing some midfield aggression, and Sunderland will need more of that against the impressive pair of Youssouf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob, even if the latter has struggled for form in the early stages of the season.
The only other likely change for the Black Cats is the return of fit-again Emanuele Giaccherini for Charis Mavrias – and the Italian international winger is no stranger to the composure needed for this big-game scenario.
This one undoubtedly falls into that category.
A first win in eight against the Baggies would represent a huge result for this fledgling Sunderland side.