PEEKING through the wrapping paper on their Christmas presents, Sunderland looked like they were going to get everything on their list to Santa.
After the festive fantasy of last-gasp victory at St James’s Park, Sunderland were in pole position to gain some serious traction up the Premier League table against Hull and Aston Villa.
It hasn’t quite worked out like that.
A solitary point from those two bottom half sides is a frustratingly poor return.
Yes, Sunderland were hamstrung by Andre Marriner on Boxing Day, but in truth, the Black Cats needed to win at least one of the last two games, possibly both.
They have paid the price for an appalling second half against Hull and their failure to find a breakthrough against 10 men at Villa Park.
Instead of creating a hefty buffer with the relegation zone, the bottom three remains at arms-length, and it may creep even closer after a tough next three games, with trips to Manchester City and Spurs, sandwiched by the visit of a much-improved Liverpool.
However, as last season’s point at the Etihad demonstrated – the result which began the Great Escape – Sunderland never cease to surprise with the unexpected.
Can they do it again?
Well, this is perhaps not a bad time to face the reigning champions.
Manuel Pellegrini’s depleted attacking options inevitably detracts from City’s armoury. Sergio Aguero’s devastating performance at the Stadium of Light four weeks ago is proof of that.
And with Vincent Kompany and probably Yaya Toure missing tomorrow through injury, City’s defensive solidity ebbs away too.
Just look at how Burnley worried City’s back-line on Sunday to come away with a point, despite being two goals down.
Sunderland have a couple of injury headaches themselves, particularly in midfield, where it would be a surprise if Liam Bridcutt and Seb Larsson feature after their injuries at Villa Park.
Lee Cattermole is the obvious replacement to reclaim his spot from Bridcutt after Gus Poyet had attempted to introduce fresh legs in the West Midlands.
But does Poyet opt for the extra-attacking threat of Emanuele Giaccherini to replace Larsson or does he hand a recall to Jack Rodwell at his former stomping ground?
Rodwell is the more like-for-like stand-in for Larsson, yet it was a damning move from Poyet to leave the £10million summer signing out of the 18 altogether at Villa.
Five months on from his big money departure from the Etihad, Rodwell is yet to rediscover the kind of form from his Everton days which saw him become one of the brightest prospects in the country.
If given an opportunity tomorrow, this is the kind of game in which Rodwell needs to make an impact and demonstrate his worth as Sunderland’s big-money summer signing.
It’s difficult to envisage many more changes for the third game inside a week.
Perhaps Sebastian Coates will be introduced if Wes Brown needs a breather, and likewise Ricky Alvarez or Will Buckley out wide.
But there has to be a suspicion that Poyet will save the wholesale introduction of fresh legs for Sunday’s FA Cup third round visit of Leeds.
Anything at the Etihad tomorrow would represent a timely boost prior to that nostalgic cup tie.
Sunderland haven’t conceded on the road since November’s win at Crystal Palace – a run of four successive away clean sheets their best defensive run in the Premier League era.
They will do well to extend that sequence to five at the start of 2015.
Verdict: Home win