ARGUABLY Sunderland’s most remarkable result of last season did not come at the Etihad, Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge.
Heading to Merseyside on Boxing Day, there were genuine fears that Sunderland were braced for another Goodison Park spanking akin to the 7-1, 5-0 and 4-0 routs witnessed there during the previous 15 years.
When he looked back at Sunderland’s Great Escape at the end of the season, it was no surprise that Gus Poyet immediately recalled the importance of that unlikely win
Basement boys Sunderland were on a winless run of three points from six games, had just fluffed the chance to improve their situation after a dire Stadium of Light stalemate with Norwich, and were without first-choice central defensive pair John O’Shea and Wes Brown through injury and suspension respectively.
Ominously, in came summer signings Valentin Roberge and Modibo Diakite...
It didn’t exactly encourage confidence.
But despite that defensive handicap, Sunderland recorded a crucial 1-0 victory, albeit thanks to Tim Howard’s red card after Ki Sung-Yueng pounced on Leon Osman’s loose touch.
When he looked back at Sunderland’s Great Escape at the end of the season, it was no surprise that Gus Poyet immediately recalled the importance of that unlikely win.
If O’Shea’s ever-present record comes to an end tomorrow – with the skipper a doubt after being forced off last weekend – Sunderland may again be dealing with a novice defensive partnership, albeit South American pair Sebastian Coates and Santiago Vergini are more established than Roberge or Diakite.
With Brown only just returning to training and playing a modest 45 minutes for the Under-21s on Monday night, Dick Advocaat may have little choice.
In fairness, both Coates and Vergini managed to restrict Southampton’s threat when pitched together last weekend, although both dropped a couple of clangers with hasty clearances out of defence.
But this is another huge test for the duo against an Everton attack of Romelu Lukaku, Ross Barkley etc who have won their last six outings at Goodison.
Sunderland’s centre-halves need to stand up and be counted, and then some.
Surely if O’Shea fails to make it though, that will be the only change from Advocaat tomorrow lunchtime.
Advocaat has no need to change the set-up or personnel unnecessarily from the side that showed such commitment against Southampton last weekend.
The return to fitness of Steven Fletcher shouldn’t make any difference to Advocaat’s plans, even if the Scot started the ex-Holland manager’s first three games at the helm.
Danny Graham was superb in the 2-1 win against the Saints, took his chance and, given the way Everton looked vulnerable under Aston Villa’s aerial assault last weekend, could enjoy similar joy tomorrow.
If anyone is susceptible to being dropped, it’s Jermain Defoe after he could barely bring the ball under control last Saturday, albeit he won the match-winning penalty.
But Defoe is a far more likely scorer at present than Fletcher, with the latter likely to offer an extra attacking threat on the bench.
Regardless of Fletcher’s six-month goal drought, as against Southampton, Sunderland are going to need every potential match-winning option available to them tomorrow.
There is not quite the “must-win” element to this one as there was against the Saints.
But, realistically, Sunderland need to put something on the board this weekend and a point may ultimately not be enough of a return.
Given the superior goal differences of Hull and Leicester, it’s not much good drawing level with that pair, even if they do lose later on tomorrow afternoon.
Even if Sunderland beat Leicester next Saturday, the Black Cats would still be behind the Foxes if they conquered QPR on the final day and Advocaat’s men succumbed – as is likely – at Arsenal and Chelsea.
Sunderland have to aim to get above Leicester before Nigel Pearson’s side visit the Stadium of Light in eight days time.
If they can record a victory at lunchtime, the heat will be on Leicester against Southampton later in the day, as it will be on Aston Villa, Hull and Newcastle.
After winning at Goodison for the first time in 18 years last season, Sunderland need victories to come along like buses.