STEVEN FLETCHER was the first Sunderland player to feel the full force of Alfred N’Diaye.
When the France Under-21 international made his maiden appearance on the training field at the Academy of Light on Wednesday, Fletcher was at the front of the queue to face a crunching N’Diaye challenge.
That is an element Sunderland have missed this season, certainly since Lee Cattermole limped down the Stadium of Light tunnel against QPR in November.
But it is N’Diaye’s height which will be just as crucial as his ability to put a foot in against West Ham tomorrow, providing the necessary paperwork is received for the 22-year-old to make his Sunderland bow.
Sunderland are not blessed with an abundance of imposing physical specimens.
Other than the two centre-halves and goalkeeper, only strikers Steven Fletcher and Connor Wickham measure up above the 6ft mark.
So the timing for N’Diaye’s arrival couldn’t be better against the side who have inherited Stoke’s mantle as the premier purveyors of the direct approach in the Premier League.
The return of Joe Cole has given the Hammers more nous, yet watching their scintillating FA Cup third round encounter against Manchester United last week, Sam Allardyce’s side will still play to a tried and tested formula.
It’s a simple one. Get crosses into the box early and hope Kevin Nolan can sniff out a knock-down, as he did so agonisingly at Upton Park in September and regularly during his stint on Tyneside.
From set pieces particularly, Sunderland must demonstrate their fortitude in the aerial battle and for a likely makeshift central defensive partnership of Titus Bramble and Matt Kilgallon, tomorrow’s game will be a significant test.
But the 6ft 2in N’Diaye will provide a much-needed tool in the long ball scrap, presuming O’Neill thrusts him straight into the starting XI.
It’s a big ask after just three days of training with his new team-mates.
But given the opposition and Sunderland’s struggles in the engine room since Cattermole’s injury, O’Neill will surely be tempted to throw the £3.8million arrival straight into the fray.
Who lines up around him is, to a degree, dependent on fitness.
Danny Rose and Carlos Cuellar are both ruled out after limping off against Bolton.
By default, Kilgallon is the only available replacement for Cuellar, but the stand-in for Rose at left-back revolves around selection elsewhere in the starting XI.
Jack Colback or Phil Bardsley will occupy the position, but that largely depends whether Craig Gardner is used in central midfield or at right-back.
With Stephane Sessegnon still an injury doubt after missing the Bolton game with an ankle problem, Gardner could well find himself remaining in the advanced midfield role.
But then the form of Connor Wickham creates another permutation.
Wickham is certainly in contention to make his first start alongside Steven Fletcher after changing the course of the game at Bolton.
And in an encounter where there is unlikely to be a great deal of two-touch football, perhaps Sunderland would do well to mimic West Ham’s approach by adopting a more direct ploy.
Sunderland were unquestionably a much bigger goal threat when Wickham was introduced to the fray at the Reebok Stadium and if the Black Cats can get their noses ahead tomorrow, a slender advantage may prove to be sufficient.
The Hammers have scored just once in their last four games on the road – taking just one point from that run – and this is an encounter where Sunderland have a more than realistic chance of victory.
If Sunderland can get back to winning ways after successive Premier League defeats, then it will further ease the worries over those below them.
Just as N’Diaye’s arrival, that would be timely, ahead of next weekend’s trip to third bottom Wigan.
Verdict: Home win