SUNDERLAND have the chance tomorrow at Villa Park to set themselves up for the December marathon which is likely to hold the key to their season.
After the disappointment of another away defeat, yet again in unpredictable circumstances, this time at Stoke - Sunderland have one more crack at getting it right on the road when they take on Aston Villa.
A point or three would be just the boost Gus Poyet’s men need ahead of a demanding December which will cram in seven games - an average of almost a match every four days.
After three-and-half months in which a dozen Premier League games have been played, Sunderland now face half-a-dozen games in one month.
And December could be the month of destiny for the club.
It’s a schedule as important as it is hectic because by the time face Aston Villa again - on New Year’s Day 2014 - we will have a much, much better idea of how Sunderland’s season is likely to pan out.
And Sunderland’s mission in the month ahead has to be simply this: Hang In There!
Hope has to be pinned on a revival waiting for Sunderland in the New Year.
They have a number of things in their favour, not least a set of home fixtures which look like an invitation.
In the first half of the season they faced Arsenal Manchester United, Newcastle United, Southampton, Man City, Chelsea and Spurs in consecutive home games at the Stadium of Light.
In the New Year it will be Stoke, Hull, West Brom, Crystal Palace and West Ham making visits to Wearside.
There’s also the matter of the transfer window in which the Black Cats can look to make it one or two decisive signings at the same time as an overly large squad is trimmed.
And on top of that there’s the fact that Gus Poyet and his brand of football seems to be in the process of stabilising the club and there’s every indication that Sunderland will play better football in the second half of the season than they have in the first.
That being the case, the most important thing is that Sunderland don’t find themselves cut adrift as 2013 turns into 2014.
They may be bottom of the league going into this weekend’s fixtures but the gap between them and fourth bottom is narrower than it was a couple of weeks ago.
And - like Villa last season - who pulled off their escape by not dropping too far behind mid-season, Sunderland have to ensure that when this year expires, they have not left themselves too much ground to make up.
A good result at Villa tomorrow would be a help, the games against Chelsea and Spurs might offer the Black Cats another ‘Man City moment’.
But the games against West Ham and Cardiff away, and the game against Norwich at home in particular, have to be seen as key moments in the campaign; key moments to keep up with their fellow strugglers.
If Poyet can keep his side within touching distance of safety by the time Sunderland and Villa meet again on January 1, it’s just possible that Wearside could be in for a Happy New Year after all.