A WRY SMILE crept over Martin O’Neill’s face in the Academy of Light press room when asked if the international break had been a long one.
“It really has been,” replied the Sunderland manager.
The last 12 days began badly for the Black Cats and have got progressively worse – an inability to beat Norwich City compounded by the injury to Steven Fletcher, plus doubts over the fitness of David Vaughan and Stephane Sessegnon.
Sunderland supporters have had precious little of a positive nature to contemplate during the Premier League’s hiatus.
These are indeed dark times for a side without a win in their last seven games and facing a harrowing run of fixtures to alleviate relegation fears which have multiplied to alarming proportions.
The only way O’Neill’s side can lift the storm clouds is by putting points on the board and to do that, they will have to shatter all preconceived perceptions in the next four outings.
Tomorrow lunchtime certainly holds meagre encouragement for Sunderland to upset the odds.
The league leaders have enjoyed a 17-match unbeaten run in the top flight and January’s draw at Spurs is the only occasion during 2013 when there hasn’t been a ‘W’ next to Sir Alex Ferguson’s side in the league.
Manchester United are currently at their most formidable best and blessed by the motivation – however petty it may be – of Stadium of Light revenge, there will be a hunger to extend the margin at the summit to 18 points, at least until their neighbours host Newcastle at the Etihad Stadium at 3pm.
Not even an ill-timed FA Cup quarter-final replay on Monday lunchtime will prove fatal.
If Ferguson saves Robin van Persie, then he can call upon Danny Welbeck. If there’s no Michael Carrick, then fit-again Paul Scholes is waiting in the wings.
Is it merely a formality then that Sunderland will suffer a fifth defeat in eight?
Well, if they replicate the lackadaisical performance from their last two outings against QPR and Norwich, then the Black Cats will be straightforward cannon-fodder.
Sunderland need some battle, some resilience, some tempo and some intent.
They can do that against the big boys though.
Boxing Day’s win over Manchester City – one of the few uplifting moments of the campaign – was proof that these players can raise their game on the big occasion.
But this is still an almighty challenge, not helped by O’Neill’s injury problems.
The absence of Fletcher for the remainder of the campaign is perhaps not quite the fatal wound it has been depicted as over the last few days.
Fletcher had netted just once in seven and at least in Danny Graham, O’Neill recruited an experienced Premier League striker in January, even if the former Middlesbrough man has proved underwhelming to date.
It would have been staggering too if O’Neill had persisted with a 4-4-2 against United rather than utilising the security of an extra man in midfield, albeit that could constitute Sessegnon operating in that halfway house role between the forward lines.
O’Neill will hope Sessegnon doesn’t add to the absentee list tomorrow, although the Benin international should be passed fit.
Vaughan is more of a concern after an injection to his groin injury while on Wales duty proved insufficient for the 30-year-old to feature against Croatia on Tuesday.
Jack Colback and / or Alfred N’Diaye will come into central midfield, while Titus Bramble will have the daunting task of containing United’s strikers in place of ankle injury victim Carlos Cuellar.
But it is James McClean who seems the prize candidate to take Fletcher’s spot in the side.
McClean has not started for Sunderland since January, but enjoyed two highly productive outings for the Republic of Ireland during the break.
Any player boasting a hint of confidence is an attractive proposition to O’Neill at present, and McClean now falls into that category.
It would be a nice tale if the 23-year-old makes some headlines on the field in this one – the boyhood United fan, who was scouted by the Old Trafford outfit last season following his remarkable rise to prominence.
But it is collectively that Sunderland need to break the cycle of decline if they are to scupper every punter’s coupon tomorrow lunchtime.
Verdict: Away win