A PAINFUL routine awaits Sunderland today.
The drive to the airport. The brief southbound flight. The coach trip to the ground. The wander into the away dressing room. The pre-match trot onto the pitch to salute the couple of thousand travelling supporters.
It would be naive to believe there have been no after-effects of Sunderland’s Southampton drubbing. The evidence was blatant against Arsenal nine days ago that the Black Cats’ confidence had been dented from their miserable south coast surrender.
But the return to the road today is the true test of whether Gus Poyet’s troops have suffered any long-term post-traumatic stress.
The Southampton result has cast a shadow on not just the last fortnight, but the season in its entirety.
For Sunderland to emerge, they need to prove that there is some foundation behind the inevitable sound-bites which have appeared about “drawing a line” under events at St Mary’s.
But Poyet’s side are starting from a low ebb.
Fragile confidence, defensive jitters and attacking impotence – all components of Sunderland’s display against the Gunners – were reminders of the shambles Poyet inherited 13 months ago.
Even the omens aren’t good, with Sunderland’s winless run on Monday nights now standing at 20 games.
The rickety, yet atmospheric, surroundings of Selhurst Park is not the ideal place to turn over a new leaf.
Faced with an inevitably hostile environment, this will be as much a test of Sunderland’s character, as it will be their ability to create a meaningful opportunity or eliminate the defensive howlers.
The latter trait will surely see Vito Mannone and probably Wes Brown removed from the starting line-up after their costly lapses in concentration against Arsenal.
Poyet was right to give Mannone an opportunity to make amends for Southampton.
Dropping the Italian at that point would have made him a scapegoat for that appalling collective failure.
But while Poyet has had to be fair to Mannone, so too does he have to do right by Costel Pantilimon, and the head coach’s remarks prior to the Arsenal game were particularly telling.
“Normally I don’t change the goalkeeper when they have a bad game,” he said. “When they have two bad games, then they have a problem.”
Mannone’s confidence has ebbed away. He needs to be taken out of the firing line for his own good.
After all, that’s why Sunderland brought Pantilimon to the club in the first place.
It would also be a surprise if Brown kept his place after being substituted at half-time at Southampton and then producing a miserable mistake against Arsenal.
While new signing Anthony Reveillere is evidently short on match fitness, the Frenchman’s inclusion would allow Santiago Vergini to revert to centre-half, where he had shone in the two games prior to Billy Jones’ injury.
The danger in that ploy is that Palace are a threat out wide through the pace of Yannick Bolasie and Wilfried Zaha.
It’s a gamble to put faith in a Premier League virgin who hasn’t kicked a ball competitively in five months and is a week shy of his 35th birthday.
There are few other options for Poyet to change his hand, unless he opts for a wildcard in Charis Mavrias or the dramatic step of a new formation by deploying Steven Fletcher alongside Connor Wickham in a more orthodox 4-4-2.
Until the crocked Ricky Alvarez and Emanuele Giaccherini return to the fray, it is perhaps a case of simply getting far more out of those at Poyet’s disposal – more runners from midfield, more crosses, more frequently getting in behind the opposition defence.
Palace have problems of their own, with a sick bug lingering around the training camp last week and key figures James McArthur and Scott Dann only outside bets to return tonight from injury.
But on their own turf – where Palace won more than any other side in the bottom half last season – Sunderland face a significant test of both their character and quality to arrest the decline.
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