A HEADY mix of emotion, ecstasy and adrenaline left Sunderland’s players mentally drained when they emerged from the Old Trafford tunnel in January.
After 120 minutes of absorbing football, followed by the delirium of penalty shoot-out success, even seasoned professionals like John O’Shea and Phil Bardsley were clearly having difficultly taking in the enormity of Sunderland’s League Cup semi-final joy.
That was a night for the ages; a night which will be forever remembered by the 9,000 from Wearside who truly experienced a Theatre of Dreams.
But tomorrow’s return to Old Trafford could be similarly iconic.
It could be the weekend when Sunderland complete the Great Escape.
Well, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility anyway.
Should Sunderland extend their winning streak to three successive games and both Fulham and Cardiff fail to secure victories at Stoke and Newcastle respectively, the Black Cats would have half a foot in next season’s Premier League.
If Norwich then succumb against Chelsea on Sunday, Sunderland would have achieved the miracle, due to their superior goal difference over the Canaries.
That’s a lot of ifs, buts and maybes though.
It would take a remarkable run for that scenario to occur.
If Sunderland are to secure their survival before the final day, it is far more likely to come in next Wednesday’s visit of West Brom, although both players and supporters have to be braced for this most dramatic of seasons going to the wire.
All Gus Poyet’s troops can do is concentrate on keeping their points tally ticking over.
A draw tomorrow could be just as vital as a win in the fine margins which divide teams in the lower reaches of the Premier League table.
But coming away with anything from Old Trafford will be a far harder task than it was a fortnight ago.
Sunderland know more than most about the bounce that a new manager in mid-season can bring – the last three incumbents of the Stadium of Light dug-out have all enjoyed one.
Rightly or wrongly, there will be a perception in Manchester United’s ranks that the shackles of the David Moyes era have been removed and the players can enjoy their football again in the freedom of Ryan Giggs’ caretaker stewardship.
Long-term is a different matter, yet, certainly for the last few embers of this season, United will have a buoyancy about them, particularly if Robin van Persie returns from a knee injury and plays a part tomorrow.
Sunderland won’t be daunted by that challenge though.
After taking four points from the trips to Manchester City and Chelsea, and then following it up against Cardiff last weekend, there is plenty of confidence in Poyet’s side.
The make-up of that team is unlikely to change from the last three games either.
Poyet’s only real selection dilemma against Cardiff was whether to recall Phil Bardsley for Santiago Vergini after the former Manchester United man completed his two-match suspension.
After another solid display from Vergini at right-back, there seems little likelihood of Poyet shuffling his pack unless forced to.
Even the player pushing hardest for a starting spot, Emanuele Giaccherini, has demonstrated the impact he can make off the bench.
Sunderland could not be in a better place heading to Old Trafford, even though there is a typically nagging feeling among supporters that a custard pie has to be around the corner somewhere.
But, as Lee Cattermole said this week, no team in the Premier League appears to be more determined to record victories at the moment.
Finally, after weeks of missed opportunities following the Capital One Cup final, Sunderland have got the grit between their teeth after realising the magnitude of the task they had left themselves.
It would be phenomenal if they could edge closer to that finishing line at Old Trafford.
Verdict: Home win
* Don’t miss the top report and reaction from Manchester United-Sunderland tomorrow, plus the biggest and best coverage of SAFC and local football, in the online Football Echo. It’s available on this website from around 6.45pm tomorrow.