MARTIN O’NEILL animatedly pumped both fists on the MK Dons touchline as Craig Gardner’s free-kick whistled through the night air into the top corner of the net.
The Sunderland manager is no stranger to showcasing his euphoria from his vantage point in front of the dug-out, yet there was a particular delight – tinged with relief – that Lee Cattermole’s dismissal had not derailed the Black Cats’ Capital One Cup challenge.
This is a pivotal week in how Sunderland’s season will be viewed, and O’Neill knows that.
Had Sunderland crashed out of the cup against League One opposition, then the fine balance judgements on the Black Cats’ start to the season would have swung decisively to the negative.
The same applies to tomorrow’s visit of Wigan.
If Sunderland can secure a precious first Premier League victory, then the early signs of the campaign are overwhelmingly encouraging – seven points from five testing encounters and a spot in the fourth round of the cup to boot.
But defeat, or God forbid another draw, and Sunderland will enter the second international break – and the derby on the other side – without a victory... unless they can upset the odds at Manchester City on Saturday week.
Tomorrow is the biggest game of Sunderland’s season so far and once again Wigan provide the opposition at a crossroads moment.
Despite bearing the brunt of an opening 30-minute onslaught, then bottom-of-the-table Wigan recovered to inflict defeat on Sunderland at the Stadium of Light last November and bring the curtain down on Steve Bruce’s reign.
While O’Neill is light years away from being in such a perilous position, he still requires the victory which will create a positive – rather than uncertain – outlook and instil some confidence in players who have lost the winning habit in the Premier League.
Wigan similarly need three points if they want to avoid prophecies predicting another season of toil.
Roberto Martinez’s men have taken a modest four points from their opening five games, losing their last two, and are yet to prove they can offer sufficient threat without the departed Victor Moses.
Although Wigan overwhelmed a much-changed West Ham side in midweek, Moses still leaves a considerable gulf, as does Franco Di Santo, with the Italian sidelined by the calf problem which ruled him out of last Saturday’s defeat to Fulham.
The pace of fellow frontman Arouna Kone will still be a threat to a Sunderland defence, not blessed with scorching speed in the heart of the back four, yet O’Neill’s focus will be on building a sufficient lead that the Wearsiders cannot surrender for a fourth successive league outing.
Key to that – ironically in a week when Sunderland were drawn against Middlesbrough – will be the selection dilemmas over two former Rockcliffe academy team-mates.
Adam Johnson will make a belated league bow at the Stadium of Light after appearing for the finale at MK Dons.
Johnson has featured for just 90 minutes in the Premier League since his £10million move from Manchester City, but his importance to Sunderland has already been felt.
Against both Liverpool and West Ham, Sunderland missed Johnson’s threat on the counter-attack and they were pinned back.
With the onus on Sunderland to attack tomorrow, the Wearsiders need Johnson’s creativity – particularly out wide against Wigan’s five-man defence that needs to be stretched to create those elusive pockets of space.
Replacing Cattermole presents more of a headache for O’Neill.
If Johnson takes Seb Larsson’s spot on the right, then the Swede, along with David Vaughan and David Meyler, will scrap to partner Jack Colback in central midfield.
The attacking capabilities of Larsson and Vaughan are likely to see one of the duo get the nod, and the fact that the former has created two of Steven Fletcher’s four goals may prove decisive.
If Larsson simply reverts to a central role to accommodate Johnson, then that is likely to be the only change from the side which just missed out on a first league win at Upton Park.
There can be no ‘just’ missing out tomorrow.
Verdict: Home win