IT HAS BEEN a brutal education to the Premier League for those three sides who emerged from the Championship last May.
QPR, Leicester and Burnley all find themselves engulfed in the thick of the relegation dogfight. It would be stunning if even two of them survive. All three could very easily find themselves plummeting backwards.
But while the top flight’s new boys have all found the going tough, there isn’t a great deal separating the glut of sides lingering outside the top eight.
Even a modicum of consistency can produce handsome rewards, while the ability to pick up a point or two on the road is pivotal too – as QPR and to a lesser degree Burnley, have found to their cost.
Yet perhaps the greatest divide in the bottom half of the Premier League and the lower reaches of the top 10, is the ability to field a prolific striker.
Just look at the impact Jermain Defoe has made in just three league games for Sunderland – ironically a transfer target for Harry Redknapp during the January window.
Suddenly, there is an element of danger in the Sunderland attack, with a natural poacher always confident of getting his name on the scoresheet.
It rubs off on the rest of the side too. Other players don’t feel the burden of finding the net to be an overwhelming one.
It’s the same at every club.
Swansea were not as convincing without Manchester City new boy Wilfried Bony on Saturday.
Bafetimbi Gomis worked hard and is a physical handful for centre-halves, but his finishing prowess is not anywhere near the same standard as Bony’s.
And had QPR not been blessed by the presence of Charlie Austin this season, then the Loftus Road outfit would have been dead and buried, never mind facing an uphill battle to avoid the drop.
Austin has netted just once in the last six league games. QPR have taken just two points from that run. It’s no coincidence.
It was a boost for managerless QPR that fears over a broken foot for Austin over the weekend, were ultimately allayed.
But the 25-year-old’s absence tonight is a big boost to Sunderland’s hopes of maintaining QPR’s pathetic away record.
QPR are short on confidence, short on leadership and now they have to do without Austin, plus central defensive pair Richard Dunne and ex-Sunderland loanee Nedum Onuoha.
It’s a great opportunity for Sunderland to move a step closer to Premier League survival.
Inevitably, the more pessimistic among supporters will head to the Stadium of Light fearing it would be “typical Sunderland” to hand QPR their first points on the road this season.
Poyet has clearly been concerned about complacency after the Burnley win 10 days ago too – making a point of stressing that Sunderland “are not alright”.
But Sunderland are in a good frame of mind after their three results last week, and should be relishing the chance to put another victory on the board.
A lack of fresh legs is a slight concern, with Jack Rodwell and Emanuele Giaccherini still absent tonight, and Connor Wickham only likely to be on the bench after his sooner-than-expected recovery.
Don’t forget this will be the fourth of five games inside a fortnight.
Adam Johnson and Steven Fletcher could be restored to the starting XI after substitute’s outings at Swansea, but there are unlikely to be major changes.
When things are going well, fatigue never seems to bite as much anyway.
Sunderland have to take advantage of vulnerable opposition and ensure that their forwards momentum continues.
Verdict: Home win