TOP HALF of the table and the chance to raise modest hopes with a couple of victories in the cup.
Those pre-season expectations have looked a distant, almost farcical, prospect for much of this season’s sorry opening.
But in little over a fortnight, Sunderland have stunningly found themselves back on track to achieve what Steve Bruce had hoped for all along during those long summer nights.
Bruce’s successor Martin O’Neill won’t admit it, but surely the club’s relegation fears can now be banished.
Graduating to 10th place on Tuesday night signified that Sunderland can achieve their goal of top half consolidation, while using that platform of Premier League solidity to their advantage in the cups.
It is too late in the Carling Cup after the Black Cats continued their miserable recent record in the knock-out competitions by suffering second round elimination at Brighton in August.
But Sunday’s FA Cup third round trip to Peterborough should be seen as an opportunity, rather than a chore, at the end of a bumper festive points feast on theadbare resources.
Certainly, Sunderland cannot do any worse than recent FA Cup history after last season’s defeat to Notts County made it a seventh successive year without advancing further than the fourth round.
At least in O’Neill, Sunderland now boast a manager with a track record of cup success, who will ensure his players strive to continue their resurgence at Peterborough.
O’Neill lifted two League Cups at Leicester, finished as runners-up at Aston Villa and secured three Scottish Cups at Celtic.
If a club perennially tipped as an outside bet for cup silverware is to blow the dust out of the trophy cabinet, then O’Neill is the man to do it.
The problem for the Ulsterman is the chronic lack of options in injecting some energy into a side who used every drop of fuel in the reserve tank at the DW Stadium.
Kieran Richardson should at least be feeling a little less under the weather than he was against Wigan, while Phil Bardsley and Michael Turner aren’t a million miles away from featuring.
But any possible returns from the list of absentees are likely to be offset with Nicklas Bendtner and more severely, Jack Colback, limping their way onto the team bus in Lancashire.
Ji Dong-won will be in contention to provide fresh legs up front anyway and if Colback fails to feature, after hobbling badly during the final seconds at Wigan, Richardson would be the likely contender to take his place at left-back.
Craig Gardner could take the vacant spot in midfield with Ahmed Elmohamady introduced at right-back.
Such a re-jig is far from ideal, but Sunderland have shown the character to adapt under O’Neill.
Nine different players have found the net during the ex-Aston Villa manager’s six games in charge, while the likes of John O’Shea, Craig Gardner and Colback have all been shunted between various positions.
Those handed their chance in the starting line-up under O’Neill have made a seamless transition too, most notably James McClean.
The 22-year-old is one player who will not be feeling the draining effects of two games inside 48 hours.
Adrenaline alone is pumping through McClean’s veins at the moment after breaking into Sunderland’s starting XI and scoring his first top flight goal.
He will be desperate to get a first taste of the “magic of the cup”, even if his meteoric rise is no surprise to Peterborough boss Darren Ferguson.
The successor to the Ferguson managerial genes almost signed McClean from Derry in a £300,000 move last July.
McClean (right) flew to London for talks with the Posh, only for the move to collapse due to personal terms – Peterborough director of football blaming the 22-year-old’s agent.
Peterborough’s loss has very much been Sunderland’s gain, but there remain plenty of other threats in the ranks of the Championship club, who have not been shy in finding the net this season.
Only league leaders Southampton have found the net more times on their own turf than Peterborough’s tally of 27.
Ex-Macclesfield hitman Emile Sinclair will test the fledging central defensive partnership of John O’Shea and Matt Kilgallon with his pace in behind, while the elusive George Boyd must be kept under wraps by the resurgent Lee Cattermole as he floats in behind the front two.
But ultimately the decisive factor in Sunday’s televised clash will be whether Sunderland’s fatigued troops can raise themselves one more time.
The incentive of six days rest and recuperation before the trip to Chelsea should provide sufficient incentive for the Black Cats to give it their all.
If Sunderland are still in the hat for the fourth round by the time they head to Stamford Bridge, O’Neill’s festive mission will be complete.