MANCHESTER City basked in the Autumn twilight before the shackles of expectation were clamped.
In the days prior to the league table taking a predictable complexion, free-scoring City thumped minnows and title rivals alike to spark an endless cycle of guffawing over their prospects for silverware.
But as 2012 dawns, beads of sweat are beginning to emerge on City’s brow as the pressure tells on their bid for a first top flight title in 44 years.
Roberto Mancini’s side have hardly crumbled as the business end of the campaign begins to take shape, that is to be expected given the calibre of players at the Italian’s disposal.
Yet the burden of being the Premier League’s pace-setters is taking a toll and the first seeds of doubt sown over City’s fortitude to last the duration.
What at one stage looked an unassailable five-point lead at the summit has gone, with Manchester United surely succeeding their neighbours as league leaders tomorrow at home to basement boys Blackburn.
Encouragingly for Sunderland, City have not won in their last three league games on the road – admittedly two of which were at Chelsea and Liverpool – and toiled without success to break the deadlock at West Brom on Boxing Day.
Mario Balotelli cracked a long-range missile against the crossbar and David Silva missed a glaring opportunity from eight yards, but Baggies stopper Ben Foster was never seriously tested.
Perhaps it’s a blip or perhaps it’s a sign of the crucial omission in City’s make-up – the inexperience of what it takes to win a title over nine enduring months, an asset their neighbours hardly lack.
If there is a semi-decent time to play City, then New Year’s Day may just be the moment, particularly with Mancini keeping half an eye on Tuesday’s clash with Liverpool.
The concern for Sunderland is that they have failed to profit from such opportunities against the Premier League’s heavyweights this season.
Neither Arsenal or Manchester United were in vintage mood when the Black Cats succumbed by a familiar one-goal margin, while the absence of Gareth Bale and premature exit of Aaron Lennon wasn’t sufficient for Sunderland to earn anything at Spurs.
A Sunderland side buoyant from collecting seven points in Martin O’Neill’s four games in charge, will doubtless offer stern resistance to City, but the fear is it will be another case of the Wearsiders suffering defeat by the narrowest of margins.
O’Neill’s threadbare defensive options don’t help matters. with Phil Bardsley and Titus Bramble (right) both struggling to be fit after coming off through injury against Everton on Monday.
Rather than risk a rookie such as Louis Laing or John Egan alongside Wes Brown, or hand a dramatic recall to in-from-the-cold Matt Killgallon, the likelihood is that John O’Shea will revert to central defence if Bramble fails to recover.
But losing Bardsley as well, particularly when Michael Turner remains sidelined, forces O’Neill to drop the consistent Kieran Richardson back to left-back while incorporating a makeshift right-back – likely to be either Ahmed Elmohamady or Craig Gardner.
Considering City’s mouthwatering attacking arsenal is characterised by players eminently capable of drifting beyond opposition defenders, it is not the ideal time to be experimenting at the back.
The old adage of defending from the front is relevant too though and Sunderland can ill-afford to sit deep and let City take siege.
Nicklas Bendtner and Stephane Sessegnon have noticeably provided more of a threat over the last two games and must maintain that against a City backline which could include fit-again duo Micah Richards and Aleksandar Kolarov.
But perhaps the key man for Sunderland is Lee Cattermole.
The skipper has been eager to prove a point after regaining his place in the starting line-up following his arrest for alleged criminal damage and Sunderland have reaped the rewards.
Cattermole’s last two performances have been characteristic of the influential role he played both during his early days at the club and during the Wearsiders’ purple patch before the start of what has been a fairly miserable 2011.
Sunderland need the 23-year-old to be colossal in breaking up City’s fleet-of-foot approach play and prevent an attack, which has notched an astonishing 53 league goals, establishing any rhythm.
If Cattermole and co can muster anything tangible from their efforts on Sunday, then it would be another major step in gathering the momentum behind O’Neill’s reign.
Few will shed any tears at the passing of 2011, but what a start to 2012 it would be if the Black Cats can further dismantle City’s title bid.
Verdict: Away win