THE POST-promotion slump has already begun for Queens Park Rangers.
While fellow Premier League new boys Norwich and Swansea continue to meander happily in mid-table to confound the inevitable pre-season predictions of doom, QPR are experiencing life at the sharp end of the top flight.
Just four points from seven games, a solitary victory at home all season and a meagre six goals inside the claustrophobic surroundings of Loftus Road is all they have to show.
Ordinarily, such statistics would see alarm bells rather than jingle bells chiming over an imminent return to the Championship, particularly after Manchester United spurned a hatful of opportunities to inflict a rout on Sunday.
But even if Neil Warnock’s men collapse over the festive free-for-all, QPR remain a largely unknown quantity over their survival prospects during the business end of the campaign, principally due to the outcome of the January transfer window.
New owner Tony Fernandes’ pockets were deep after completing his takeover in mid-August, swiftly releasing sufficient cash to meet the significant pay packet demands of Joey Barton and Anton Ferdinand.
Warnock wants another three or four in the New Year, having already been linked with Fulham outcast Bobby Zamora and there has to be a suspicion that QPR will throw enough money at avoiding the drop to ultimately prevail.
But with the fresh impetus of new signings still weeks away, QPR are labouring and there can be few better opportunities for Sunderland to head to Loftus Road.
Admittedly, Sunderland are hardly in the best of shape themselves, with the breathing space with the bottom three restricted to a quick gasp.
Yet in many ways, QPR are the ideal opponents for Martin O’Neill’s hopes of achieving the modest immediate target of averaging a point per game.
Sunderland’s woes this season have stemmed from an inability to take their chances and then being punished for the odd lapse at the other end. They have hardly been cannon fodder.
But with QPR struggling to find the net and showing an alarming openness at the back against Man United, it’s the perfect combination for O’Neill’s goal-shy side.
The continued absence of Anton Ferdinand, right, if he fails to recover from the hamstring strain which ruled him out against the champions, won’t hinder the Black Cats, particularly with the centre-half eager to prove a point against his former employers.
Mercurial duo Barton and Adel Taarabt are yet to produce their best this season while Shaun Wright-Phillips has faded after initially revelling following the conclusion of his Manchester City misery.
If Sunderland’s back-line can cut out the odd clanger and stick tight to the workmanlike trio of Jay Bothroyd, Heidar Helguson and Jamie Mackie, then the Wearsiders have every chance of some joy in their second trip to London within four days.
As ever, though, this season, the biggest question mark over Sunderland comes at the other end.
With Connor Wickham expected to miss out after a bang to his knee at White Hart Lane, common wisdom suggests Nicklas Bendter will step into the breach left by the 18-year-old.
Bendtner seemed less languid at Spurs, but the quality of his end product was poor and perhaps even the Dane’s lofty self-belief has been knocked by Sunderland’s descent.
The on-loan Arsenal man needs to prove something to O’Neill, though and providing he concentrates on the seemingly alien concept of attacking the back post rather than wandering to the flanks, he has every chance of adding to his two-goal tally.
Bendtner’s task will be made easier if O’Neill’s pleas to the supporting cast to flood the opposition penalty area begin to hit home.
Too many times at Spurs, the ball was delivered from the flanks with a solitary figure in the box.
Perhaps it’s understandable, given Stephane Sessegnon is hardly an aerial threat, while central midfield pair Jack Colback and David Vaughan offer a limited goal threat.
Craig Gardner must come into the equation as a potential inclusion. The former Aston Villa man has the history under O’Neill and boasted more of a spring in his step when he was introduced against Spurs.
With QPR finding the net just six times at home and Sunderland just six times away, the odd goal is likely to decide tonight’s crunch clash.
That’s where a Gardner 25-yarder would be so timely.
Any chance of providing a second victory in three has to be explored – a scenario that would provide a major boost to O’Neill’s hopes of restoring Sunderland’s threadbare confidence.