THERE has been a decent dose of mitigation behind Sunderland’s goal troubles over recent months.
The absence of the twinkle-toed trickery provided by Emanuele Giaccherini and Ricky Alvarez has been a blow significantly aggravated by the sidelining of attack-minded full-backs Patrick van Aanholt and Billy Jones.
The presence of four centre-halves along the defensive line for the Tyne-Wear derby said everything about how Sunderland’s attack-from-the-back ambitions have been dented by injury.
But now there are no excuses.
Gus Poyet has near-enough a fully fit squad to pick from tomorrow lunchtime.
Lee Cattermole is a major doubt, yet Liam Bridcutt has demonstrated this season that he is a more than capable stand-in. Poyet has the opportunity to deploy Jones and van Aanholt in tandem for only the third time.
He has the chance to somehow squeeze Giaccherini or Alvarez into the starting XI.
The selection headache is perhaps not so difficult for Poyet, considering several players could do with a breather.
Santiago Vergini has been running on empty for weeks, but has manfully played on with no alternative right-backs available.
Midfield pair Jordi Gomez and Seb Larsson have looked jaded too, albeit the latter will surely start tomorrow after becoming a key figure in the Sunderland set-up.
But Poyet has to try something different to complement defensive solidity with attacking potency.
Sunderland were painfully laborious over the festive period against Hull and 10-man Aston Villa, albeit they produced an eye-catching 10-minute spell at Manchester City to claw back a two-goal deficit, before succumbing 3-2.
And while the name Liverpool still looks daunting on paper, particularly after going so close to a first league title in more than two decades last season, there is nothing to fear from Brendan Rodgers’ side now.
Prior to the second-half introduction of Steven Gerrard, Liverpool were frankly appalling in last month’s stalemate at Anfield.
Had Sunderland boasted any hint of attacking panache, then they would have been going away with a first victory at Liverpool since October, 1983.
Since then, Liverpool have improved slightly – Raheem Sterling is a threat with his pace in a more central role, while Gerrard will surely start tomorrow after his contribution was managed carefully over Christmas.
But Liverpool are still vulnerable, particularly at the back where Simon Mignolet looks a shadow of the goalkeeper, who showed such ice-cool composure during his final season at the Stadium of Light.
Mignolet was a wreck in Monday night’s FA Cup third round win at AFC Wimbledon; flapping at crosses and set-pieces, including the equaliser from the League Two side.
Sunderland were faced with a similarly nervy goalkeeper in the derby and put several crosses down the throat of Jak Alnwick, albeit they could easily have made more of it.
They need to do likewise tomorrow.
This is a game Sunderland can win, and is a game which they could really do with winning.
One point from the three games post-Tyne Wear derby has been a poor return, with the defeat to Hull still a source of frustration.
Sunderland need to restore a healthy buffer with the relegation zone, while building some confidence at the Stadium of Light, ahead of a more “winnable” run of fixtures at home over the second half of the campaign.
However, to do that, Poyet’s men must turn over a new leaf and prove they are not just the nearly men of the Premier League.