FOR ALMOST a year, Chelsea has been the measuring point for any Sunderland performance.
November’s victory at Stamford Bridge remains the pinnacle of Steve Bruce’s reign as Sunderland manager after the then reigning top flight champions were swatted aside in the most impressive away display from the Black Cats since the Premier League was born.
No one arriving at the Stadium of Light tomorrow will be expecting such an emphatic victory for those in red and white, yet the encounter harbours the potential to be similarly season-defining.
Sunderland badly need to provide some tangible proof that their hesitant start to the season can be explained away as the bedding-in period for the summer’s acquisitions, even if the pain endures from the derby defeat and Carling Cup exit.
The Stadium of Light needs some cheer too after an alarming slump in results during 2011 culminated in the Newcastle loss in the maiden home game of the campaign.
Confidence on their own patch cannot be high in the Sunderland dressing room, but back-to-back home games provides the ideal opportunity for a tonic.
Next week’s encounter with Stoke is on paper the more inviting, although given their significant height advantage over a relatively slight Sunderland side, plus the feel good factor in the Potteries from deadline day, it is hardly a “gimme”.
Tomorrow’s game shouldn’t automatically be viewed as the bigger long shot of the two fixtures.
Facing a top four side at such a tender stage of the season is often an advantage, particularly when a new manager, unaccustomed to the Premier League, is in the dugout.
Although they remain unbeaten, Chelsea have failed to convince in the manner of a Manchester United, Manchester City or Liverpool.
And given their opening three games have been against two sides who finished in the bottom half last season and a newly-promoted outfit, it has been an uninspiring dawn for Andre Villas-Boas.
The Portuguese is yet to find a solution to the persistent Fernando Torres-Didier Drogba strike partnership conundrum and now has the problem of striking a balance with the youthful additions to his ageing squad.
Sunderland need to be wary of summer buys Juan Mata and Raul Meireles though, with the duo, both in contention to start tomorrow, possessing the creativity and goal threat to worry a reshuffled defence.
Wes Brown’s central defensive partnership with Anton Ferdinand had been one of the few positives of the season and coupled with the injury doubts over John O’Shea, Sunderland are essentially starting from scratch again in building a back four.
Michael Turner and Titus Bramble both came through a midweek behind-closed-doors game against Newcastle and the latter will get the nod to partner Brown.
Bramble was rusty and shaky during pre-season though and Bruce remains concerned at the condition of the former Wigan man’s knee, despite the centre-half’s claims to the contrary.
O’Shea’s absence tomorrow, having failed to recover from the calf and hip problems sustained on international duty, leaves Sunderland’s defence looking that little bit more brittle.
But other than from set-pieces, Sunderland’s back four has coped comfortably so far this season under the marshalling of Brown.
Bruce’s more significant headache is finding a formula in attack after the toothlessness in the final third over the opening four games of the season.
Given Nicklas Bendtner’s towering confidence was further boosted by a brace for Denmark on Tuesday night, the on-loan Arsenal man looks likely to be handed an instant start after just two days training with his new club.
The addition of Bendtner presents Bruce with various permutations over how to deploy the 6ft 4in targetman.
The out-of-sorts Asamoah Gyan could be instantly sacrificed or Bruce may feel the Ghanaian will benefit from having a more physical presence alongside him, leaving Stephane Sessegnon free to fill the problem position on the left.
Gyan at least has pedigree against Chelsea and perhaps will benefit from the end of the transfer window halting the round of rumours.
In what promises to be a tight affair, Gyan could do with another iconic moment to heal both his and Sunderland’s reputation.