IT has been a long time coming, but cup fever will descend on Sunderland tonight when the Stadium of Light starts to fill and it finally dawns upon the Wearside public that, amid this mad rush of games, a genuine cup semi-final is actually taking place!
Such has been the head-spinning rapidity with which fixtures have come and gone since the end of November and across Christmas and the New Year, there has been little time to think about or savour Sunderland’s progress to the last four of a major cup competition.
Such has been the depressing and prolonged nature of Sunderland’s battle at the bottom of the Premier League, no one has really felt in the mood to!
But here we are.
And although Sunderland fans have had a lot of the hope sucked out of them by a hugely depressing 2013, the cups have offered a genuine respite from the misery of the league.
Tonight, they face their most daunting challenge yet as David Moyes brings the wounded Premier League champions to the North East.
But although the Red Devils’ descent into the doldrums will inevitably not last too long, Sunderland can hope the dip continues long enough for them to exploit the visitors’ current discomfort.
Hope in that direction can be taken from the expected absence of two regular torturers of Sunderland – Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, though there is a chance the latter might yet be available.
If both are not involved, the burden of goalscoring is likely to fall upon Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez.
Both can do it of course – Hernandez is always capable of a goal, while former Sunderland loanee Welbeck has seven goals in 10 league starts so far.
They are not as potent, though, as United’s first-choice pairing and Sunderland are expected to have Wes Brown and John O’Shea ranged against them with the in-form Vito Mannone behind them.
How these duels pan out is likely to be the key to the outcome of tonight’s game – Welbeck’s pace and Hernandez’s intelligent movement versus the experience of two former Manchester United stalwarts, who have seen it all before.
For Sunderland to do well, Brown and O’Shea must tame their rivals while Mannone will have to be at his shot-stopping best to deal with the shots on goal from all around United’s side which will inevitably come.
United have scored in nine out of 10 of their away games in the Premier League this season. For all their well-documented difficulties, they have remained potent on the road.
And while the onus is on the home side to take a lead into the second leg, just as important for Sunderland will be ensuring United do not run away with it before the two teams meet again at Old Trafford.
It will not be a high-scoring game on Sunderland’s part – they are not built that way, and certainly not against a side of United’s calibre.
The Black Cats’ best hope lies in securing a clean sheet at one end and pinching a goal at the other.
But, as Gus Poyet says, in order for Sunderland to do that, they have to be at their very best.