THE DEBATE raged over the early months of the season, yet no-one was able to come up with a convincing answer.
What was Sunderland’s strongest starting XI?
Gus Poyet was equally flummoxed by the problem when he first took charge at the Stadium of Light and it took him several months to get through various combinations before finally landing on an effective formula.
A pattern has now emerged with Poyet’s selection and there will be few – if any – surprises in the side that lines up at Wembley in 10 days time.
With the cup-tied Liam Bridcutt removing one of the dilemmas, most supporters would concur in naming the bulk of the team now, barring any late injuries or suspensions: Mannone, Bardsley, Brown, O’Shea, Alonso, Cattermole, Ki, Colback, Borini, Johnson and...
It’s that last position which is the missing link for Poyet, yet the one which is arguably the most pivotal on the pitch.
Sunderland’s lack of an in-form striker has been the glaring omission in their ranks, despite the huge upturn in form under Poyet.
A paltry tally of just four league goals between the strikers is a harrowing statistic.
The goal contributions of Fabio Borini and Adam Johnson have taken the heat off the issue, yet there is no overwhelming favourite in the battle among Sunderland’s four frontmen to start at Wembley and beyond.
Missing a second successive pre-season has caught up with Steven Fletcher, who has struggled to recapture the predatory form he showed in the first half of last season.
Fletcher has clearly been hampered by his Achilles injury over recent weeks and there remain significant doubts over whether a period of rest will cure the problem or he will be forced to go under the knife.
But the 26-year-old has too often been surrounded by a lackadaisical air – whether through a lack of confidence or an inability to fit into Poyet’s system.
That has given Jozy Altidore the opportunity to prove he was worthy of a second shot at the Premier League, yet the American – by his own admission – has struggled.
Altidore was colossal in the Tyne-Wear derby, but that was an all-too-rare sighting of the 24-year-old making the most of his physique.
Most concerning, Altidore has rarely looked a goal threat.
The chant of “If Jozy scores, we’re on the pitch” from the terraces has been a damning indictment of the £6million summer arrival.
With neither Fletcher or Altidore firing, is Poyet forced to take a gamble to unearth a frontman capable of netting those crucial goals either at Wembley or in the relegation scrap?
The option of moving Borini centrally is one which Poyet has considered and the on-loan Liverpool man is undoubtedly a composed customer when blessed with a sight of goal.
But that has to balanced with losing Borini’s phenomenal work-rate and tracking back when he operates out wide.
Nacho Scocco could be thrown in at the deep end, yet it was evident against Southampton on Saturday that the Argentina international is still well-short on match fitness.
The £4million signing may be an option from the bench over the final half-dozen games, but for now, Poyet cannot risk a player who is not match-sharp.
The long-shot at Poyet’s disposal is Connor Wickham – the only one of the quartet who can boast any hint of form after netting eight in 11 at Sheffield Wednesday.
Wickham produced a bright 20-minute cameo against the Saints, albeit he should have fed Fabio Borini when Sunderland enjoyed a three-on-one break, rather than going for goal himself.
It would be a brave decision from Poyet to unleash Wickham.
But Fletcher and Altidore have been given plenty of chances this season without producing a consistent run of form. Is it time to give Wickham an opportunity?
Perhaps Sunderland will have to muddle through until the summer when it will surely be an area Poyet looks to address.
The Black Cats could do with a pest up front; someone who is happy to embrace the task of the lone frontman and never lets defenders settle.
Craig Mackail-Smith did that for Poyet at Brighton, with Hull new boy Shane Long probably the closest top flight striker in that mould.
Long’s £7million transfer fee and hefty wages would have put him out of Sunderland’s financial reach during the January window, particularly as there is more than £30m of striker investment already on the club’s books.
But the summer’s planning seems a lifetime away at the moment, while there are trophies and top flight status at stake.
Poyet needs one of his strikers to step up to the plate now.