AS SUNDERLAND labour to reach double figures by the campaign’s midway point, it’s easy to forget that European football was a very real possibility in the 2010 festive season.
Steve Bruce’s side lay in seventh spot at the halfway mark after two months challenging inside the top eight.
Yet even in the most successful post-Peter Reid Premier League season for Sunderland, the Black Cats’ points tally from the more productive first half of the campaign was a modest 27.
A team which could boast Darren Bent, Danny Welbeck, Jordan Henderson and a focused Asamoah Gyan, managed 27 points in the opening 19 games of the season and then 20 in the second half.
It shows the magnitude of the task facing Gus Poyet for Sunderland to reach anywhere near a tally of 27 in the second half of this season.
The current Sunderland crop are yet to prove they have the same individual quality or collective harmony as Bruce’s best side.
And that’s why there is a “now or never” element to the next four games.
Sunderland have to bring down the points demands for the second half of the season by registering at least a couple of wins before the turn of the year marks halfway.
If the target for the last 19 games is 23 or 24, then survival is possible, particularly with a more inviting run of Stadium of Light fixtures and the chance to strengthen in January.
Tomorrow is a golden chance to get one of those coveted victories.
West Ham cannot relax and relish the prospect of facing the only top-flight side still without an away win.
With the Iron’s subsequent two league games against Manchester United and Arsenal, the pressure is on Allardyce to deliver tomorrow, particularly as a Sunderland victory would take them to within just two points of the hosts.
Allardyce’s confirmation yesterday that Andy Carroll is not ready to return against the Black Cats does not help the ex-Newcastle boss either.
With skipper Kevin Nolan suspended for a callous studs-up challenge on Jordan Henderson at Liverpool last weekend and Stewart Downing injured, it leaves Allardyce with a headache in the final third.
However, there is an obvious danger for Sunderland.
Allardyce is not short on physical behemoths and after Tottenham’s opening goal last Saturday became the seventh time Sunderland have conceded from set pieces this season, the Black Cats inevitably have to beware of the danger from deadball situations.
Whether it’s a matter of concentration or organisation, Sunderland have to get back to the defensive rigidity they showed at Aston Villa in their last away outing.
They need goals too.
Sunderland have not found the net on the road since Steven Fletcher’s header at Crystal Palace in August.
That can’t go on either tomorrow, or in the trip to struggling Cardiff on December 28.
The experiment with Fletcher alongside Jozy Altidore last weekend did not totally convince and Poyet may revert to one or the other.
With Altidore impressing against both Chelsea and Spurs, the American is in pole position to get the nod.
Italian trio Andrea Dossena, Fabio Borini and Emanuele Giaccherini will hope to be restored to the starting line-up after being handed breathers against Spurs, while Poyet is perhaps reaching the stage where he needs to experiment with Lee Cattermole and Ki Sung-Yeung in the same side.
Poyet must get his team selection right though for a game which is arguably the most important of the campaign.
Sunderland have provided a Godsend to confidence-drained strugglers this season – succumbing at Crystal Palace, West Brom, Hull, Stoke and Swansea.
If they do so again, it could be curtains.
Verdict: Away win