THERE have been 50 shades of doom for Sunderland fans since Connor Wickham cruelly created hope by bundling the ball home after a minute at the Britannia Stadium.
After that dream start – and the subsequent glorious chances which came and went for Sunderland – a point at Stoke was far more underwhelming than it would have been if offered beforehand.
But it has been the results elsewhere which have created a rampant sense of resigned acceptance that this is the year when Sunderland’s fortune in evading relegation runs out.
Weekend wins for Hull and Stoke which propelled Sunderland into the bottom three were bad enough, but then to witness the Tigers beat Liverpool on Tuesday... well, that seemed to be the final straw.
Hull were the only side in the dogfight whose run-in compared in difficulty to Sunderland’s, yet Steve Bruce’s men are now on the verge of safety.
Wearside breathed a collective sigh of relief that Chelsea at least produced a second-half comeback to win at Leicester 24 hours later.
If one of the wins doesn’t arrive against the Saints this weekend, then you really do begin to fear for Sunderland
But the fortunes of Sunderland’s relegation rivals have only reinforced the point that the Black Cats will be relegated unless they help themselves.
Regardless of what anyone else does, Sunderland realistically need to win at least two of these final five games.
It’s difficult to imagine an inferior total being sufficient, particularly when Leicester face plummeting Newcastle tomorrow lunchtime.
Sunderland’s goal difference alone – ruined by the 8-0 defeat in the reverse fixture against Southampton – makes it all the more imperative that they add at least another six points to the tally.
If one of the wins doesn’t arrive against the Saints this weekend, then you really do begin to fear for Sunderland.
It’s not impossible for Sunderland to win at Goodison Park, the Emirates or Stamford Bridge.
But a defeat – or even a draw – tomorrow leaves Sunderland staring down the barrel.
Sunderland need to win. Full stop.
At least Advocaat has something to build upon from Stoke, unlike the shambolic capitulation against Crystal Palace in the last home game.
The Dutchman will surely stick with the 4-3-3 formation from the second half last weekend, rather than the orthodox 4-4-2 which did not convince during the opening 45 minutes.
And, with scant other option up front (albeit tomorrow will bring fresh scrutiny over Adam Johnson’s involvement), Danny Graham is in line to be handed his first start under Advocaat.
Substitute Graham did well in the second half at Stoke and provided the platform for Connor Wickham and Jermain Defoe to buzz around him.
That provided an all-too-rare sight this season of goal opportunities.
Graham for Will Buckley is the obvious change, but there will surely be one in midfield too, with the return of Seb Larsson from suspension.
After yet another anonymous showing from Jack Rodwell against the Potters, the £10million man is far more vulnerable to being dropped than fellow midfielder Jordi Gomez.
As a side note, surely there has to be a place on the bench for Duncan Watmore too, particularly when Advocaat was clearly not convinced by the options among his substitutes last Saturday.
The danger, of course, is that Sunderland push so hard for a win that they are picked off on the counter-attack by the pace in the Southampton attack.
Sunderland’s players won’t need any reminders of October’s shocker at St Mary’s to know all about the Saints’ strengths going forwards.
Ominously, they boast a similar set-up in attack to Palace, and we all know how that ended.
But Sunderland have to take risks and make the running.
Whether it’s revenge, money or pride which motivates Sunderland’s players this weekend, they HAVE to ease the drop fears.