THERE has been a clear effort from Gus Poyet to make Sunderland’s striking situation an opportunity, rather than a burden.
Since before the campaign even got underway, Poyet has been repeatedly quizzed over who would prove to be the regular scorer in Sunderland’s ranks.
It’s been an understandable line of questioning. Connor Wickham is yet to prove that his contribution to last season’s survival can be a regular occurrence, while both Steven Fletcher and Jozy Altidore are searching for their first Premier League goals since December.
But Poyet has not been dragged into a game of piling the pressure on the trio of frontmen to “score or else”.
Instead, the Sunderland boss has spoken of how they should relish the chance to be the hero in red and white by being that regular scorer.
How he is open to picking any of the strikers, depending on who finds the net. It’s a clear black and white selection policy.
The words have been consciously positive from Poyet, while in contrast, supporters have been openly fretting over the continual blanks from the frontmen.
But regardless of Poyet’s rhetoric, it’s time for Wickham, Fletcher or Altidore to stand up and demonstrate why Sunderland spent so heavily to bring each of them to the club.
Sunderland’s search for a maiden Premier League victory doesn’t rest entirely on their shoulders.
The goal burden has to be a collective responsibility, while the fluency of the service lines has to further improve, rather than stagnate, from last weekend’s stalemate against Swansea.
But when there is evidently so little between the bottom dozen sides in the Premier League, the respective ruthless streaks of the strikers will decide who remains engulfed in relegation anxiety and who can look up the table with a touch more optimism.
Last week’s Capital One Cup clash was a case in point.
There was precious little between Sunderland and Stoke, and this weekend’s encounter will be similarly tight. One or two moments in the penalty area will decide things.
Wickham is more than likely to remain up front tomorrow and his general play has been pretty decent so far this season. But the 21-year-old needs a goal to complement his work in leading the line. That header from eight yards which looped over the Swansea bar last Saturday was not the finish of a fully confident frontman.
Despite Ricky Alvarez’s impressive cameo from the bench against the Swans, Poyet is unlikely to tinker with the support cast for Wickham.
Other than Jack Rodwell, no-one in Sunderland’s line-up last weekend was particularly below-par.
Sunderland will need to be patient in their build-up play, with Stoke likely to sit deep and make the most of their pace on the counter-attack.
It’s a ploy which has served Mark Hughes’ side well away from home this season after taking five points on the road – including a win at the Etihad.
Sunderland’s attack-minded full-backs need to be wary of fleet-of-foot pair Victor Moses and Marko Arnautovic – with Mame Biram Diouf injured – while also looking to overlap Adam Johnson and Will Buckley at the other end.
Poyet’s side must get in-behind the Potters, rather than all their play being in front of the well-drilled visiting defence.
Sunderland did that in the final half-hour against Swansea.
If they can do it again tomorrow with a similarly controlled display, then Sunderland have every chance of breaking their Premier League duck.
But to do that, someone needs to put their head above the parapet and be a match-winner.
Verdict: Home win