IF THERE was a pre-emptive moment of Sunderland’s season, then it arrived in an 11-minute spell on the opening day.
The two-goal lead and two points squandered against Birmingham City have proved to be the root of Sunderland’s downfall this season.
Steve Bruce’s side have surrendered a staggering 23 points from winning positions – a tally that would have seen them lying second in the Premier League table heading into this weekend’s games.
Panic was contagious in Sunderland’s ranks when they held the advantage against West Brom last weekend and led to an inevitable scenario.
If Bruce could wish for one thing for the return to his former club tomorrow, then it will be that Sunderland show far more guts if they get their noses in front.
That’s far from easy when players are starved of any confidence after three months without the sweet taste of victory.
But character and bottle are what Sunderland need if they are to get out of this embarrassing self-inflicted predicament.
It will be required at St Andrew’s against a Birmingham side bursting with seasoned, battle-hardy professionals.
The likes of Stephen Carr and Lee Bowyer along with Barry Ferguson and Roger Johnson – expected to recover from neck and head injuries respectively – will relish the opportunity of a basement battle.
Sunderland must ensure they stand up to that rigorous test with skipper Lee Cattermole potentially the key figure for the Black Cats.
If they can prevent Birmingham overpowering them, then Sunderland will have a chance because Alex McLeish’s men are hardly prolific.
Only Wigan have scored fewer Premier League goals with strikers Nikola Zigic and Obafemi Martins both struggling through injury.
Ex-Sunderland hitman Kevin Phillips is expected to stay up front alongside Cameron Jerome, but the main threat will come from set pieces through the pinpoint delivery of Sebastian Larsson.
It makes it all the more important that Sunderland show some defensive resolve if they get their noses in front, although another reworking of the back four won’t help matters.
With John Mensah and Titus Bramble a doubt and Anton Ferdinand struggling with both injury and form after failing to combat Peter Odemwingie last weekend, Bruce has little option than to turn to Nedum Onuoha alongside Michael Turner.
Onuoha has enjoyed a mixed bag at centre-half, although he was excellent in the heart of the back four in December’s goalless draw at Fulham.
Ahmed Elmohamady can expect to replace Onuoha at right-back, with Jordan Henderson’s break from the action potentially being restricted to a solitary game.
If Kieran Richardson fails to recover from a calf strain, then Sulley Muntari looks the likeliest candidate for the central midfield slot alongside Cattermole, particularly after Bolo Zenden was off the pace against the Baggies.
But the big dilemma for Bruce will be his formation.
Does he stick with the 4-4-2 which was relatively ineffectual against the Baggies or revert to 4-5-1 in the hope of injecting some solidity into Sunderland’s shape?
Sunderland have struggled to create chances in either system over the last two months with their strikers too static yet too rarely receiving sufficient service.
Bruce’s men can’t be overrun in midfield as they were against the Baggies though and an extra man in the engine room would ensure they at least aren’t picked off as easily as they were in the second half last weekend.
Even if the encounter barely flickers into life and fades out to a horrible stalemate, it would hardly be the worst result for Sunderland.
Anything which breaks the cycle of defensive clangers, discarded leads and increased relegation worry has to be welcomed.