SUNDERLAND and QPR spent a week cosily nestled as neighbours at the same training complex in the baking Dubai heat, writes Chris Young.
While the sum total of negative publicity surrounding the Black Cats involved a picture of them sunbathing on the beach, Harry Redknapp awoke last Saturday morning to lurid tales of late night/early morning booze sessions involving his squad.
It could easily have derailed QPR for what was essentially a make-or-break encounter at Redknapp’s former club Southampton.
Yet Rangers managed to pump oxygen into a survival bid which was beginning to look increasingly lifeless.
Redknapp has understandably argued that the tabloid drama proved a rallying point for his side, although that slightly overlooks the fortune QPR enjoyed at St Mary’s.
Southampton created and spurned several opportunities, and it required a stunning save from substitute keeper Rob Green to prevent the hosts netting a late equaliser.
QPR need to ignore that, and focus purely on the confidence boost gleaned from recording only a third win of the season, which takes them to within four points of safety.
Sunderland’s opponents tomorrow cannot afford to be lulled into a false sense of self-belief.
This is an expensively-assembled side that has played drastically below the sum of its parts since August.
Nevertheless, this is testing time for Sunderland to visit Loftus Road.
QPR are at the stage where anything less than back-to-back wins for the first time this season will be regarded as a disappointment and Martin O’Neill’s side need to be braced for an early onslaught, buoyed by a boisterous home crowd.
Yet Sunderland should not fear their hosts. They are facing a side who have been in the Premier League’s bottom two all season for a reason.
Although the Black Cats have not enjoyed the sweet taste of victory in their last five games, they have been creating chances, and O’Neill will surely persist with the 4-4-2 system for the third successive encounter.
Stephane Sessegnon, who scored a stunning goal from halfway in last season’s corresponding fixture, has finally rediscovered some form and the 4-4-2 gives him the best possible opportunity to become Sunderland’s saviour in navigating them over the line to survival.
O’Neill will be confident that Sunderland can find the net tomorrow. The key area will be whether their back-line can tighten up after being breached seven times in the last four games.
QPR have managed just eight goals at Loftus Road all season and if the Black Cats can get their noses in front, there is a clear opportunity to frustrate the hosts.
Redknapp took the brave decision to drop Adel Taarabt at Southampton in favour of deploying two ex-Sunderland targets Junior Hoilett and Loic Remy, either side of targetman Jay Bothroyd.
The pace of Hoilett and Remy, coupled with the aerial threat of Bothroyd and Christopher Samba from set pieces, are clearly threats – the 6ft 5in Kader Mangane worth consideration in thwarting the latter ploy.
But there has to be a suspicion that O’Neill will opt for the same again for an encounter they can ill-afford to lose.
Had the Black Cats been heading to West London on the back of a morale-boosting victory over Fulham, plenty would have tipped them for more success, regardless of QPR’s win at Southampton.
As it is, Sunderland will have to scrap for anything they can get and another draw would not necessarily be a bad result, providing they emerge victorious against Norwich City eight days later.
A victory would be oh-so-precious though at the start of the final 10 games of the season. Win tomorrow, and those lingering relegation fears would move markedly down the pecking order.