IT’S SO far, so good, during a fortnight which could change the entire complexion of Sunderland’s season.
Victory in last week’s Capital One Cup semi-final second leg propelled Sunderland to a first cup final in 22 years, while a second trip to Wembley is not out of the question after Saturday’s ugly win over non-league Kidderminster.
But the job is only half done.
While the prospect of seeing Sunderland at Wembley has brought huge enthusiasm to Wearside, the Black Cats must complement that cup success in the bread and butter of the Premier League.
If Gus Poyet’s men can take four points or more from two league games inside four days, it really would transform Sunderland’s prospects.
It’s entirely possible, particularly given Sunderland’s recent record against Newcastle United and the impending departure of the pivotal Yohan Cabaye from St James’s Park.
But tonight’s game is just as important – if not more so – than the weekend’s Wear-Tyne derby.
For all Sunderland’s survival prospects have improved greatly with a return of eight points from the last five games, the Black Cats need to gain some real traction by beating one of their relegation rivals at home.
That has proved to be an arduous task for Sunderland over the last two months.
Poyet’s side have been excellent on Wearside in the League Cup, but in the Premier League, Sunderland fluffed their lines against Norwich and Aston Villa, and needed a remarkable comeback against Southampton to rescue a point.
Sunderland cannot afford to start at the snail’s pace they mustered for the opening half-hour in the 2-2 draw with the Saints.
While the possession-based philosophy introduced by Poyet has served Sunderland so well, the Black Cats still need to mix up their game and go for the jugular in the opening stages at home when paired with sides in the bottom half.
The first 20 minutes tonight will be crucial. Stoke will doubtless adopt the same approach as Norwich and Villa by putting men behind the ball and looking to nick a goal at the other end.
But if Sunderland can get their noses in front early doors – something that has not been a particular strength during Poyet’s stewardship – it will change the entire complexion of the encounter.
Sunderland need far more of a goal threat from their strikers to achieve that platform though, and that is where Poyet’s main decision lies tonight.
Poyet is likely to revert to the vast majority of the side which triumphed on penalties at Old Trafford after leaving out 10 of those players against Kidderminster.
But what does the head coach do up front with both Jozy Altidore and Steven Fletcher struggling and Nacho Scocco’s move still in the pipeline?
As Poyet has suggested, Fabio Borini could move into a more central role, with Emanuele Giaccherini introduced out wide.
But the other solution would be to re-introduce Connor Wickham after he was recalled two days early from his loan spell at SheffieldWednesday.
Wickham’s confidence is certainly higher than either Fletcher’s or Altidore’s after eight goals in 11 games for the Owls and surely has an opportunity to be included on the bench, if not the starting XI.
The Potters also have a striking dilemma, with Mark Hughes considering the merits of throwing new signing Peter Odemwingie straight into the mix after the swap deal with Cardiff for ex-Sunderland frontman Kenwyne Jones.
Odemwingie certainly adds pace to a relatively sluggish attack, albeit his transfer merry-go-round has affected his form over the last 18 months.
Hughes is also expected to replace Stephen Ireland and Wilson Palacios with Charlie Adam and Glenn Whelan tonight, while Oussama Assaidi could come in for Marko Arnautovic.
The ploy of Poyet’s former team-mate will be one of containment, while hoping Sunderland become frustrated and gaps appear on the counter-attack.
It’s crucial Sunderland prevail in that game of cat and mouse.
Verdict: Home win