THE WORD ‘derby’ is enough to prompt cold sweats in any Sunderland supporter right now.
Last week’s fortuitous Stadium of Light draw provided further evidence – if any were needed – of Sunderland’s inability to get the better of Newcastle.
But in the lesser battle of the neighbours, Sunderland’s recent return displays have shown none of the tentativeness or jitters which have plagued the Black Cats in the Wear-Tyne derby.
Sunderland have tasted defeat just once in their last eight meetings against Middlesbrough, triumphing on four occasions.
They may not have always been overwhelmingly superior – particularly in last year’s two FA Cup meetings – yet Sunderland have continually edged proceedings.
That again looks the most likely scenario tonight, as an overwhelming, runaway victory looks an increasingly far-fetched concept for this shot-shy Sunderland side.
In contrast to Sunderland, Boro are playing with confidence and creating chances and will head to a half-full Stadium of Light in buoyant spirits after four successive Championship victories.
Tony Mowbray won’t fall victim to prioritising the league either by making wholesale changes – purely because he hasn’t got the options available to him.
With former Sunderland favourite Julio Arca on the treatment table, along with big-hitters Jonathan Woodgate and Marvin Emnes, Mowbray’s changes will be restricted to the odd one or two.
Fresh from his double in Saturday’s victory over Bolton, Scott McDonald will take Emnes’ place alongside Ishmael Miller, while Emmanuel Ledesma could take Adam Reach’s spot out wide.
The defensive solidity overseen by Martin O’Neill will be tested. But again, it is at the other end of the field where Sunderland will be scrutinised.
This is a pivotal week for Sunderland’s attack.
Advance to the next round of the cup tonight and triumph again when Aston Villa visit Wearside on Saturday, and the last two draws suddenly take on a different complexion.
Suddenly, Sunderland would be safely perched in mid-table, with a game in hand and the promise of a League Cup quarter-final on the cards.
But if results go against them, Sunderland’s best chance of a trophy is gone and supporters descend into a cloud of apathy, wondering if the league campaign promises anything worthwhile.
To secure the victories that are imperative, the responsibility lies squarely on Sunderland’s attack.
Shots are needed, crosses are needed, even the sight of a few red and white jerseys in the penalty area is needed.
A new leaf must be turned over in the attacking third, although that may not come from wholesale changes tonight.
O’Neill won’t want to field a weakened team anyway at such a key stage of the competition, but his side is unlikely to be too dissimilar to the one that drew at Stoke City on Saturday.
Keiren Westwood could continue his run of Capital One Cup appearances by taking Simon Mignolet’s place in goal, while David Vaughan is in contention for a spot in central midfield – possibly at the expense of Jack Colback – after several bright cameos from the bench.
But with Craig Gardner and Seb Larsson both suffering dead legs at the Britannia Stadium, O’Neill’s forward options may pick themselves.
Dead legs in the Premier League take a touch longer to clear up than the ones on the playground and with a third game in seven days to come, O’Neill is likely to take a cautious approach with the duo.
Phil Bardsley was likely to take Gardner’s place at right-back anyhow, while Stephane Sessegnon was also a shoo-in to return to a more attack-minded line-up.
That will leave James McClean and Adam Johnson to continue on the flanks, unless O’Neill takes a more radical approach of deploying Louis Saha alongside Fletcher and moving Sessegnon wide.
New signing James McFadden could earn a spot on the bench too after O’Neill opted not to use the Scotland international in yesterday’s under-21 friendly.
But whatever the options on paper, O’Neill’s combination on the field needs to start clicking.
Boro have been vulnerable at the back this season and if Sunderland cannot find sufficient firepower tonight, then it is not just the loss of local bragging rights which supporters will be bemoaning.
Verdict: Home win