TWO weeks is a long time in football, but quite frankly it feels like a lifetime since Sunderland were put to the sword by Crystal Palace.
Imagine how it must feel for the players who went through that debacle!
It’s often said that the best that can happen after a heavy defeat is a midweek game to get an early chance to put it right: far from it.
The players looked physically and mentally fried as they trooped off the Stadium of Light pitch and the last thing they needed was another night in the spotlight.
In the meantime, Leicester have upped the ante, while Burnley and QPR have been beaten again.
Quite unnaturally at this stage of a season, Sunderland will have had a fortnight to clear their heads, refresh their bodies and come up with a strategy for Stoke on Saturday.
Essentially, this is what Lee Congerton hired Dick Advocaat for: to put into practice years of experience working on the training ground with top players; years of managing under scrutiny at the sharp end; years of finding a solution.
Judging by his comments post Palace, it seems Advocaat underestimated the size of his task and perhaps overestimated the tools at his disposal.
He’s been tactically enterprising if only marginally successful with it so far on Wearside.
Clearly he feels goals are an issue hence his insistence on finding room for Jermain Defoe, Steven Fletcher and Connor Wickham in the team.
But I’ve never been convinced the amount of goals you score is related to the number of strikers you play.
Hopefully, after a couple of run-outs as a sub, Adam Johnson will be ready to go from the start again on Saturday.
I’d be tempted to play Wickham through the middle where he was so successful at this stage last season; Defoe could reenact his Newcastle role from the left with Johnson creating from a starting position on the right.
Behind them, I’d restore Lee Cattermole to the deeper midfield role he filled with so much success under the tutelage of Gus Poyet; as Advocaat will now know this defence needs protecting!
Seb Larsson, who I think has had an excellent season, would come straight back from his ban to play alongside Cattermole and Jack Rodwell.
A quick glance around the Stoke squad will tell you why you need as much height in your team as possible and Rodwell will have a big role to play defending set-pieces.
With a reinforced midfield, there might be greater freedom for the full-backs Billy Jones and Patrick van Aanholt to make headway on the flanks without the fear of being punished so brutally.
My priority would be to make the team hard to beat again; I fear the damage conceding an early goal could do to their evidently fragile confidence.
Grow into the game first, hurt them later.
Yes, they’ve had a great season, but Stoke are far from invincible.
Traditionally, they have been unbeatable at the Britannia, but this season Aston Villa, Leicester and Burnley have all won there – that was Burnley’s only away win of the season!
If they can do it, why can’t we?
Stoke are the club Sunderland probably should be.
Since their promotion in 2008 they’ve barely flirted with relegation.
They came up from the Championship with the heavy financial backing of their chairman Peter Coates, who formed an excellent understanding with his manager Tony Pulis.
Pulis had a plan and Coates backed him all the way.
When Coates finally decided their relationship had run its course he appointed Mark Hughes, a boss others in the Premier League had consigned to the scrapheap.
And they’ve gone from strength to strength, on course for successive top 10 finishes: what Sunderland would give for that!
It’s all quite hard to fathom, especially given how many players left Sunderland for Stoke when it seemed like their careers had run aground on Wearside and then we saw them flourish in the Potteries.
So what do they have that we don’t?
Better stadium, training ground, location, fanbase? No, on all four counts.
Greater wealth to attract better players to play for them? It doesn’t appear so.
From the start of Coates’ ownership they’ve got more big decisions right than wrong.
It’s as simple as that, the right managers given the right backing at the right time.
Consistency and stability, those ugly qualities that Ellis Short thought he’d get from Steve Bruce, Martin O’Neill and Gus Poyet, but which have so far remained elusive.
Let’s hope consistency eludes Stoke on Saturday … still keeping the faith.