THE MAGNITUDE of Monday night’s clash at Crystal Palace was written all over Gus Poyet’s face in the seconds before kick-off, writes Chris Young.
As he wandered down the Selhurst Park touchline, Poyet twice puffed out his cheeks in anticipation of a pivotal moment in Sunderland’s campaign.
He had done all he could. Now it was the turn of his players to prove their mettle.
Poyet knew Sunderland had to ensure that the downward spiral stemming from the 8-0 rout at Southampton was nipped in the bud before it derailed the entire season.
“It was about coming back to normal,” he said.
That one win – a result which Poyet said afterwards could not be put into words – has again put an entirely different spin on Sunderland’s season.
Now, it looks to be a reasonably solid start once more.
Sunday’s result against Everton will doubtless put a new complexion on proceedings yet again.
The Premier League will be like that on a weekly basis throughout this season.
With so little separating a dozen or so sides who lie outside the upper reaches of the top flight, each club is going to have spells during the campaign when they are put on crisis mode.
Everyone will come under the doom-mongers’ media spotlight at some stage.
Both Sunderland and Newcastle have been through it already with the season only 10 games old.
However, the upside of so many evenly-balanced teams is the opportunity to pick up points, without necessarily needing to perform at maximum capacity.
Setting aside the rout at Southampton, win over Stoke and probably the defeat to Arsenal, Sunderland’s other seven top-flight games this season almost revolved on the flip of a coin.
Those fine margins were again reinforced at Palace.
Sunderland could – and should – have conceded a penalty, and possibly been down to 10 men, within the first 30 seconds.
Even then, Sunderland spent long periods on the back-foot, yet emerged victorious.
“There’s so little between the teams,” said Poyet.
“A decision that goes for you or against you, one goal, one kick can change everything.
“It’s very tough.
“Apart from two or three teams at the top, I don’t think there are many teams who can control a game to the point where you suffer.
“Without playing fantastic or doing less than other days, you can get a win. It’s very difficult.”
For Sunderland to maintain the momentum from Palace – and secure back-to-back victories for the first time this season – the Black Cats will need to make light of their crippling list of absentees.
Poyet will be without six players against Everton on Sunday after the injured Patrick van Aanholt and the suspended Lee Cattermole were casualties of the Palace win, joining Billy Jones, Emanuele Giaccherini, Ricky Alvarez and Sebastian Coates in the stands this weekend.
Under-21 players Tom Beadling, Andrew Cartwright, Tom Robson and Duncan Watmore have all been training with the first-team over recent days, with at least one expected to be on the bench against the Toffees.
And Poyet says those youngsters must look upon their inclusion as an opportunity, as should the likes of Adam Johnson and Jack Rodwell, if they are recalled to the starting XI.
“There’s going to be a couple of kids on the bench,” said the head coach.
“Until the players recover from injuries, there’s going to be a couple of opportunities.
“But what an opportunity.
“I always say there’s going to be a day when they get a chance, and then it’s up to them to take it.
“Maybe we need Jack back or Jonno to give us that lift we need. We’ll see.
“But we need everybody to take opportunities like they did (at Palace).”
Everton, lying two points ahead of Sunderland, have rallied after an indifferent start to the season, with Roberto Martinez’s side taking seven points from their last three games.
But with the Toffees in Europa League action last night, Poyet senses a chance against opposition who Sunderland fared well against last season.
The Black Cats ended a 17-year wait for a league victory at Goodison Park on Boxing Day, while Wes Brown’s own goal inflicted an ill-deserved defeat in the reverse fixture, prior to Sunderland’s remarkable escape over the run-in.
“I think Roberto Martinez has changed it around a little bit (over recent weeks),” added Poyet.
“The presence of (Samuel) Eto’o and (Romelu) Lukaku together has been impressive.
“The Europa League always demands a little bit more from players.
“It’s not easy to play Saturday, Thursday, Sunday non-stop.
“We know we were very close last year. We only lost through an own goal.
“For long periods we were the better team and we need to show that, while making sure we get three points.”