REGARDLESS of the outcome tonight, Wigan Athletic have already altered the direction of Sunderland’s season.
After defeat to Wigan just over a month ago, Sunderland felt like they had descended into the dampest, darkest depths of a pit of despair.
The then bottom of the pile Latics were bludgeoned for the opening half hour, yet somehow restricted the deficit to a solitary goal and by the full-time whistle emerged as the unlikeliest of victors, to leave the Black Cats staring over the precipice.
Supporters revolted viciously against the losing manager, while four years of progress in the Premier League seemed to have been shelved in the face of a relegation battle that was supposedly a thing of the past.
Far from bitterly looking to settle scores at the DW Stadium tonight though, perhaps Sunderland should be grateful to Wigan for providing the watershed in the club’s season.
By winning at the Stadium of Light, Wigan brought a decisive curtain down on Steve Bruce’s regime from which there was no turning back in regaining the trust of an alienated supporter base.
Bruce simply had to be the first top flight boss to be relieved of his duties and in a matter of weeks, replacement Martin O’Neill has utterly transformed both the prospects and mood surrounding the club.
The importance of the festive period has become something of a cliché, yet 10 points from five games under O’Neill has propelled Sunderland from the nervy fringes of the relegation battle to setting their sights on the top half.
First back-to-back victories of the season tonight would genuinely put the Black Cats back on course to achieve their pre-season goal of consolidating top 10 status.
Ordinarily, you would fancy Sunderland’s chances on the back of their longest unbeaten run in a year and buoyed by the confidence boost of bettering the Premier League’s pacesetters.
Yes, Wigan have far more of a swagger than when they faced Sunderland in late-November after taking six points from the subsequent six games – no mean feat considering they tackled Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United during that spell.
But Sunderland’s star is very much in the ascendancy and they have that precious commodity of upward momentum as players buy into the ethos of the new manager.
It is not Sunderland’s form nor the daunting standard of opposition which creates reservations about tonight’s tussle though, it is simply the administrative decision-making of the football authorities.
Quite why there is such a pressing need to squeeze two games inside 48 hours at the end of a draining festive period will only be known by those at Soho Square.
Sunderland have no real grounds to complain about Wigan having extra recovery time – that’s simply the price you pay for the revenue boost from appearing on Sky.
But O’Neill is right to question the reasons behind such a swift turnaround in fixtures when supporters’ pockets are already empty.
What makes it all the more galling is Sunderland face this ludicrous schedule amid their worst injury crisis of the season with O’Neill having little opportunity to introduce fresh legs tonight.
The likes of Ahmed Elmohamady, David Meyler and Sunday’s hero Ji Dong-won will come under consideration from O’Neill, although you suspect the trio are more likely to feature in the FA Cup at Peterborough on Saturday.
O’Neill will have to hope adrenaline can again see his player’s through, as it did in the closing stages against Manchester City, while praying some of his walking wounded can return.
Phil Bardsley provides a possible boost to O’Neill if he can shake off the thigh strain which ruled him out on New Year’s Day, but Wes Brown’s groin strain means Matt Kilgallon looks certain to continue his remarkable return to first-team proceedings.
Whether Keiren Westwood and Kieran Richardson figure, remains in the lap of the paracetamal Gods.
Wigan will be without the services of suspended skipper Gary Caldwell, who grew in stature in November’s 2-1 victory after a harrowing start to the game.
But the key to proceedings tomorrow will be whether Wigan’s biggest threat, Victor Moses, can make more of Sunderland’s makeshift full-backs than City’s far more lucrative widemen.
Moses was suitably theatrical in earning Wigan the penalty to level proceedings in the corresponding fixture at the Stadium of Light, but he’s a threat with pace, a low centre of gravity and a goal to his name in New Year’s Eve’s 2-2 draw at Stoke.
Jack Colback and Craig Gardner bought into the make-do and mend mentality against City though and if they can help Sunderland to anything at the DW, then it will cap a memorable festive programme.
Supporters would have gladly taken a total of three points from the quickfire double-header with City and Wigan.
Anything more will leave Sunderland well-placed to challenge the top 10 in the second half of the campaign.