SEEING rejuvenated Liverpool leapfrog Sunderland created a glum realisation.
Finishing in the top six suddenly looks a more ominous task, particularly considering the standard of opposition Sunderland face over the next five games.
If Sunderland ultimately do miss out on Europa League qualification after losing their top six spot for the first time since New Year’s Day, then lessons can be learned from tomorrow’s opponents.
Not specifically the way Harry Redknapp has taken Spurs from a relegation scrap to the Champions League nor the wages and fees paid out to bring success back to White Hart Lane.
The biggest factor which separates Spurs from Sunderland is the depth of options at Redknapp’s disposal.
When Sunderland have been faced with half a dozen players on the treatment table this season, the roster of youngsters has been raided just to make up the numbers.
While Sunderland’s results have not necessarily suffered, Steve Bruce had little opportunity to freshen matters when chasing the game against Notts County, Newcastle and Chelsea.
Compare that to the riches littering the corridors of White Hart Lane. Against Bolton last Saturday, Spurs were missing Luka Modric, Younes Kaboul, Ledley King, Tom Huddlestone and Gareth Bale while Rafael van der Vaart didn’t emerge for the second half due to a calf strain.
Yet every outfield player on a Spurs bench that read – Cudicini, Hutton, Bassong, Kranjcar, Sandro, Pienaar, Pavlyuchenko – is an international.
That depth of quality is what Bruce and Niall Quinn need to develop over the next stage of Sunderland’s magic carpet ride if they are to regularly challenge the top six.
It will become even more paramount if the Europa League dreams become reality.
You cannot play in eastern Europe on a Thursday night and expect the same XI to be fresh at Arsenal three days later.
With the fixture schedule becoming threadbare for the next month-and-a-half, the arrival of Sulley Muntari and Stephane Sessegnon has left Sunderland in decent shape for now and Bruce has at least got some decisions to make for tomorrow.
The use of three centre-halves at Stoke was effective even if Sunderland fell well short with their defending from set pieces.
But is it really necessary to have an extra man at the back on home turf when Spurs play an orthodox “little and large” front two in Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch?
If van der Vaart recovers from the injury which saw him ruled out of Holland’s friendly against Austria on Tuesday, then it arguably proves more beneficial to have another midfielder to track the influential Dutchman.
Sunderland did that well at White Hart Lane with Lee Cattermole putting a foot in to exasperate the Spurs faithful.
Muntari will have no problem doing likewise with an extra midfielder in the shape of Bolo Zenden or Steed Malbranque then able to concentrate on matters further forward.
If Bale returns, then the Welshman should hold no fears for Nedum Onuoha either who probably had his best game of the season in North London.
Onuoha was happy to show Bale inside onto his right foot and is one of the few full-backs in the Premier League who can live with the winger’s searing pace.
There are no single threats to concentrate on though in a Spurs side which boasts the contrasting talents of Bale, van der Vaart, Crouch and Aaron Lennon.
It should at least provide a much more open and attractive spectacle than the aerial bore served up at Stoke last weekend.
What Sunderland must do is take a leaf out of Stoke’s book, not by going direct but by closing down swiftly and unsettling Spurs by being physical.
If they can do that, then the top six bid can get back on track.
Verdict: Home win