“ONE win changes everything.”
That will surely have been the thrust of Sunderland head coach Gus Poyet’s message on the training ground this week, as he attempted to lift his beleaguered players, who starkly showed in that final 20 minutes at White Hart Lane on Monday where their confidence levels lie.
For all Sunderland have been written off as potential escape artists, a shock victory against an in-form Everton side tomorrow would completely change the complexion of the relegation battle.
Suddenly, West Brom and particularly Norwich – if they fail to emerge victorious at Fulham tomorrow – would get very anxious about the prospect of Sunderland on their tails, with the Black Cats facing those inviting three final home games in the last fortnight of the campaign.
Some hope would filter down to supporters too. Just look at how a solitary win for Fulham has seen them suddenly mooted as possible survivors.
In theory, that’s all well and good.
But, in practice over the last month, Sunderland have just not looked capable of recording that one win to get their survival campaign back up and running, let alone the three or four needed to actually beat the drop.
There is a clear lack of self-belief among the players, while Poyet’s tinkering with both personnel and formations suggests he is still not necessarily convinced about Sunderland’s best XI.
With Everton salivating at the prospect of keeping their Champions League challenge on course at the Stadium of Light after six top-flight victories on the spin, few will give Sunderland a prayer of causing an upset.
Victory tomorrow would arguably exceed the shock factor of Boxing Day’s success at Goodison Park against the 10-man Toffees.
But what does Poyet try to arrest this sorry shuffle towards relegation?
Foremost in his thoughts must be whether he persists with the 5-3-2 system after three successive defeats with the new formation.
At White Hart Lane on Monday night, Poyet gave a damning insight into why he had switched to three centre-halves; suggesting the players at his disposal weren’t strong enough to play a 4-4-2.
“We are not strong enough, we cannot go man against man – if we do, we get beat,” he said.
“And that’s why we go five at the back – it’s as simple as that.”
Given those views, there has to be a suspicion that he will continue with the system tomorrow, particularly in attempting to combat the power and pace of Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku, who tortured Sunderland in two appearances for West Brom last season.
The bigger decision for Poyet may lie with whether he recalls John O’Shea to the starting XI after making the significant call to drop his captain at Spurs.
Certainly, it’s difficult to envisage Poyet gambling on a 4-4-2, with Everton, who will have Leon Osman available after recovering from a nasty facial injury against Arsenal last weekend, boasting that solidity and craft in their three-man central midfield.
Sunderland also need to be prudent in channeling Everton widemen Kevin Mirallas and Steven Naismith, who tuck in so effectively off the flanks to allow Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman to get forwards.
Poyet’s changes may be minimal.
There is perhaps a case for Connor Wickham to be recalled, yet Adam Johnson and Fabio Borini did alright up front in the opening 25 minutes at Spurs before the hosts began to dominate.
Johnson and Borini are Sunderland’s best goal threats, so it makes sense to give them a platform to roam free.
Poyet needs one of them to pull a rabbit out of the hat though.
With back-to-back trips to Manchester City and Chelsea following the Everton game, this may be the last of Sunderland’s last chances to source that “miracle” which Poyet admitted was needed after Monday’s 5-1 rout.
After the manner in which Everton swatted aside Arsenal last weekend, it’s difficult to see it happening.
Verdict: Away win
* Don’t miss tomorrow’s online Football Echo – available on this website from around 6.45pm – with our report, pictures and verdict on Sunderland v Everton, plus much more.