WHEN RAIN stopped play in August’s scheduled meeting with Reading, it prompted the big “what if?” of Sunderland’s season.
Had Sunderland been able to harness the enthusiasm generated by the double capture of Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson and secured victory in their opening game at the Stadium of Light, it could have provided a launchpad for the entire campaign.
A win against a Reading side fatigued by their midweek exertions at Chelsea, could also have sufficiently boosted the points tally to banish any early season talk of a relegation scrap.
But that’s all woulda, coulda, shoulda.
Judging by their form at home this season, Sunderland could quite easily have fallen flat on their faces against a buoyant newly-promoted team and been stranded in an even more precarious position than they are in today.
The only certainty is that Sunderland require victory tonight more than at any other time in Martin O’Neill’s reign since his first game in charge against Blackburn Rovers.
A draw would not quell any discontent and a defeat ... well, that would leave Sunderland facing a very genuine relegation scrap, rather than merely being a side plagued by early season struggles.
Yes, there is more than half the season to run after tonight’s game, but a failure to at least spark some momentum and confidence by putting three points on the board before a harrowing run of festive fixtures could propel Sunderland into an irreversible decline.
This is a game of games and Sunderland need to prosper.
The pivotal factor will be whether Sunderland can handle the tension of the occasion and produce a match-winning performance, rather than be weighed down by the magnitude of facing a struggling peer, as they were against Aston Villa and QPR.
Reading won’t be worried. They expected to be in or around the relegation scrap and their standards haven’t necessarily dropped despite finding themselves six points from safety.
If Sunderland fail to impose themselves in the opening 25 minute particularly, then it could be curtains.
Reading, as QPR did, will only grow in confidence if they survive Sunderland’s opening statement and begin to feel as if they can steel the points on the counter-attack – a very real possibility if the Black Cats reproduce the defensive clangers from Saturday.
Sunderland must hit the ground running and show the attacking intent from the second half at Norwich and against Chelsea.
Even if Steven Fletcher fails to shake off his ankle injury, as expected, Sunderland have sufficient attacking riches, with Connor Wickham suddenly re-emerging and the two widemen both enjoying productive afternoons against Chelsea.
Inevitably, the game won’t open up as it did against Chelsea, and Sunderland will have to show guile to unpick Reading’s defence and ensure their build-up has some tempo to it, rather than just lethargically going sideways in the middle of the park.
If they can, there is joy to be had against Reading’s back-line.
Goalkeeper Adam Federici, who played such a pivotal role in Reading’s promotion, has endured a nightmare season and again at Southampton, looked distinctly jittery when called into action.
The loss of key centre-half Sean Morrison won’t help Reading’s cause either after he limped away from St Mary’s on crutches due to an ankle injury.
Reading do have pace on the break in the shape of Jobi McAnuff and Hal Robson-Kanu, but tonight’s encounter is all about Sunderland.
Have the Black Cats got the fortitude to handle the occasion, to put sufficient pressure on Reading’s goal and climb out of the bottom three?
Or will O’Neill’s side wilt and plunge Sunderland’s campaign into turmoil?
There can be no what-ifs tonight. Sunderland must put three points on the board.
Verdict: Home win