I have to admit, when I sat from afar judging some of the actions of the Watford owners in the summer I gave them zero chance of survival upon their arrival back in the Premier League for the first time since 2007. Despite achieving automatic promotion just behind Eddie Howe's Bournemouth the Hornets elected to allow Slaviša Jokanović to leave the club upon the expiration of his contract, replacing him with a man in Quique Flores whom never before has managed in the Premier League.
Of the eleven players that started the last game of the Championship season at home to Sheffield Wednesday back in May only six remain at the club. Watford, it seemed, were about to make a whole catalogue of mistakes that we've seen play out many times before and I just did not fancy their chances when faced with the rough and tumble of the top flight. I suspect many felt the same.
I'll hold my hands up now and say that I was wrong to be so judgmental. With fifteen games played the Hertfordshire club are sat one point off sixth place with a positive goal difference. In Nigerian forward Odion Ighalo they seem to have stumbled across a very capable and deadly goalscorer. Ben Watson and Etienne Capoue have shown they are one of the most grounded midfield partnerships in the division. Heurelho Gomes - the ailing Brazilian goalkeeper famed for his costly errors when at Tottenham Hotspur - has six clean sheets. Despite a poor performance earlier in the season at Leicester, Gomes has been integral to the success thus far of Sanchez Flores' men.
Let's make no bones about it, the team we face tomorrow at the Stadium of Light are not to be taken lightly. Their form against the top sides may be poor but against sides in the bottom half it is nothing short of remarkable - Everton, West Brom, Southampton, Swansea, Newcastle, Bournemouth, Stoke City, West Ham, Aston Villa and Norwich have all tried and failed this season to take three points from them. It's clear they relish the fixtures against clubs like us who struggle to find consistency over a run of games.
By the same token I don't think we are to be taken lightly, either. Since the adoption of a totally new system away to Crystal Palace we've looked far more organised, we've looked fitter, we've looked better both defensively and going forward and - most importantly - we've looked incredibly motivated. The squad that was breezed aside at Everton and was beaten by a poor Southampton side at the start of November looks a million miles from the team we saw unfairly defeated at Arsenal last Saturday afternoon.
When I heard Jermain Defoe was expected to be fit to play this weekend I was immensely relieved. He's been the unsung hero of this season's Sunderland team, scoring some important goals and turning out some of the best individual performances he's had since arriving here last January to much fanfare from Toronto FC. With it looking increasingly likely that Steven Fletcher could miss out it's a huge boost to have our primary goalscorer back in the team ahead of such an important fixture. The movement and pace we seem to have stumbled across up front is a refreshing change and the return to form of Defoe coupled with the ascent of youngster Duncan Watmore has revitalised a fanbase battered and bruised by years of watching slow, turgid attacking build-up play.
I hope the players haven't taken the Arsenal defeat to heart. It can be bittersweet when you play as well as we did and come away with nothing. The importance of the larger task ahead - ensuring we play at this level next season - should take precedence. Home games against the likes of Watford are where a Sam Allardyce team either sinks or swims. Historically - at least recently - our form against the poorer sides in the division and against promoted teams generally are our primary downfall and Sam Allardyce has done much already to fix this, collecting wins against both Newcastle and Stoke City at home since taking over as manager.
Looking at the fixtures that the sides around us have this weekend we have an immense opportunity to get ahead of the pack and climb out of the bottom three. Three points could take us above Chelsea, but more realistically above the likes of Swansea and Norwich. Our next three games after the Watford match are away to Chelsea and Manchester City and at home to Liverpool. Going into that run, continuing the positive momentum we seemingly have right now, will be the deciding factor in whether or not we come out of December outside of the bottom three. By the time Aston Villa visit Wearside on the second of January, our short term aim must be to be outside of that relegation zone.
I believe to beat a side like Watford we must focus on the positive things we've been doing in recent weeks. We need to capitalise on lapses of concentration and mistakes. Our corners have to be better. Crucially, we have to stay solid defensively yet give the likes of Van Aanholt and Watmore the freedom to get forward and cause problems with their pace. As solid as Watford are, they aren't blessed with pace in defence.
By five o'clock tomorrow I hope we're looking ahead and not backwards. Lets get the three points by any means possible. Dig in, work hard and take our chances. This fixture is as important as any from now until the end of the season and we can't allow ourselves to lose focus, not now.