ESCAPING from the drop zone was almost the least significant outcome of Sunderland’s victory against Reading on Tuesday night.
Places mean zip at this stage of the campaign.
Ensuring Sunderland could at least average a point per game held far more sway, as did restoring some confidence ahead of a harrowing run of festive fixtures.
Over the next fortnight, Sunderland will face three of the top five and by conquering a dreadfully poor Reading side, they are not burdened by the desperate need to emerge victorious against the two Manchester clubs or Spurs.
Next Saturday’s trip to Southampton is a different matter, particularly with the Saints enjoying a revival of fortunes.
Yet whatever the outcome tomorrow, Sunderland will not be in the bottom three when they head to St Mary’s, with Southampton enjoying a pre-Christmas hiatus this weekend due to Chelsea’s appearance in the Club World Cup.
The pressure has been eased ... slightly, and Sunderland can revel in the role of the underdog tomorrow in their first meeting with Manchester United since last season’s dramatic final day – a reunion that won’t be lost on Sir Alex Ferguson’s players, who were vexed by the Stadium of Light’s reception to Man City’s late victory.
Have Sunderland got a hope?
Well, there has been a light and day element to Manchester United this season which can equally give Sunderland hope or despair tomorrow.
From a defensive aspect, Sunderland have conceded two fewer goals than the Premier League leaders, whose resilience has been undermined by the long-term absence of Nemanja Vidic.
But the ominous statistic is United’s far superior goal threat.
Ferguson’s side have plundered 40 goals in their opening 16 games, netting a staggering 23 times more than a Sunderland attack only beginning to looking a little less limp.
And there lies Martin O’Neill’s quandary this weekend.
On the one hand, Sunderland must look to pick the holes in United’s defence, even if they are boosted by Vidic’s return, and catch the hosts on the break.
But on the other, the Wearsiders’ focus must be on the prowess of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie after netting a combined 17 league goals between them.
Neither are Rooney, expected to recover from illness to feature, and van Persie the sole threats to worry about.
Javier Hernandez has morphed into the Ole Gunnar Solskaer super-sub role, Ashley Young is beginning to return to the form he showed at the start of his United career and then there’s the familiar face of former Sunderland loanee Danny Welbeck.
Sunderland will need to work doggedly to contain United’s attacking riches, and in that respect, fatigue may be O’Neill’s biggest enemy.
This will be the Black Cats’ third demanding game inside a week and O’Neill’s options to rotate have thinned, albeit he is hardly an advocate of wholesale tinkering anyway.
Phil Bardsley’s absence means Craig Gardner looks set for an extended run back at right-back, while O’Neill is sweating on the fitness of Adam Johnson and Danny Rose.
Johnson and Rose are likely to feature, but they, along with Steven Fletcher who was clearly tiring in the finale against Reading, will struggle to approach 100 per cent.
Not that Sunderland will throw in the towel.
Other than their defeat at Manchester City, Sunderland have performed to a decent level against the big boys this season.
But after a mentally-draining week, it is perhaps too much to ask that Sunderland register anything for their efforts tomorrow.
The confidence boost gleaned from the Reading victory may create an instant upsurge, but the test of whether Sunderland can boast any renewed self belief will be more telling in eight days time.
Verdict: Home win