IN THE SPACE of 45 minutes at Hull City, Sunderland’s penchant for footballing suicide quickly burst the bubble of derby euphoria.
Just six days after beating Newcastle last November, an own goal and two quick-fire red cards saw Gus Poyet’s attempt to harness any momentum immediately squashed at the KC Stadium.
There can be no repeat.
Hull may have triumphed in all three meetings with Sunderland last season, but there needs to be festive ruthlessness, rather than festive charity on Boxing Day.
It would be over-egging the Christmas pudding to suggest that this game is bigger than the derby, but it’s certainly up there.
For Sunderland to get some real traction in the Premier League table and create a genuinely healthy buffer with the relegation zone, they need to break their duck for back-to-back wins.
Four points from these next three games would leave Sunderland in a pole position to avoid the depths of the relegation dogfight heading into the second half of the season.
They would have smashed the 20-point barrier by the halfway mark and realistically, would need only four or five wins to guarantee their top flight status.
With the January window offering the opportunity to boost options in attack and at full-back too, it’s a scenario that would have been the stuff of dreams compared to the bleak, seemingly hopeless state Sunderland found themselves in at the same stage 12 months ago.
There are perhaps no better opponents to face at present than Hull either.
Bruce has got that same defeated air around him on the touchline that he had during his final days at the Sunderland helm. He surely couldn’t be sacked again after a defeat at the Stadium of Light ... could he?
All that confidence and momentum which Hull generated from promotion last season has now gone. They have looked distinctly ordinary recently – just two points and two goals from their last eight games.
Hull’s catalogue of injuries and suspensions only aggravates their current plight - MIchael Dawson, Tom Huddlestone, Jake Livermore, Mohamed Diame, Robert Snodgrass and probably Curtis Davies all missing Friday’s game. They are all major figures for the Tigers.
Poyet’s injury headache is not so severe, but is concentrated on those seemingly always problematic positions at full-back.
Using John O’Shea at left-back - where he performed admirably in the derby – was clearly only an emergency solution and at the Stadium of Light, particularly, it does Sunderland little benefit to have four centre-halves along the back-line.
Poyet may have little choice than to thrust Billy Jones back into the starting line-up at left-back, with Patrick van Aanholt still a fortnight away and Anthony Reveillere now a long-term absentee.
Jones won’t be match-fit and he looks far more comfortable on the right, but needs must, and Sunderland need to field at least one full-back capable of overlapping the man in front of him.
Who will that be on the left with Connor Wickham suspended?
Losing Wickham is a not-to-be underestimated blow. For all he missed a glaring opportunity at St James’s, the 21-year-old is proving to be a rampaging bull that opposition defences are struggling to keep under wraps.
Ricky Alvarez will surely take Wickham’s place, with Giaccherini only just reaching the stage where he can make a comeback.
Alvarez deserves an opportunity in the starting XI and this actually might be the ideal game for the on-loan Inter Milan midfielder, who can find that killer pass to prise open a deep-lying defence with men stockpiled behind the ball.
Sunderland have not been great at prevailing when faced with that scenario over the last year or two.
But buoyed by the derby triumph, and the euphoria of what will be a particularly joyous near-capacity Boxing Day crowd, Sunderland have to be strong favourites to make it an even better Christmas.
Verdict: Home win