No Sky Sports on-air team to hype up a non-existent rivalry. No baying crowd at the Stadium Of Light to welcome Portsmouth and to show them that we meant business.
Ultimately, it made little difference.
Sunderland fell to a miserable defeat in the third game we’ve played in the last seven days and, if this match against Portsmouth was the first genuine test of our promotion credentials, it was one that we failed. Miserably.
Saturday’s fixture list, pitting many of the early pace-setters against each other, was – on paper – extremely favourable, affording Sunderland the opportunity to move themselves into the automatic promotion picture.
As my Roker Report colleague Paddy Hollis wrote last week, leaving matches against Portsmouth behind would be one of the best by-products of winning promotion this season. This, therefore, was a superb opportunity to make a move towards doing just that.
Perhaps keen to harness the momentum we’ve built up recently and maintain the chemistry of a settled starting eleven, Phil Parkinson resisted the urge to make any major changes, only opting to switch Conor McLaughlin for the returning Jordan Willis. These days, the ongoing debate about who should start upfront notwithstanding, Sunderland do seem to have a reasonably settled starting eleven.
The question was, could the players maintain the standards they had set in recent weeks?
The answer? A resounding ‘No’.
The first half was a dismal affair, which began with Sunderland’s proud record of not conceding from open play disappearing, after the concession of a very slack goal; Marcus Harness ghosting into space and sliding the ball past Lee Burge for a very cheap opener.
Fortunately, Portsmouth’s lead lasted barely five minutes, as Denver Hume set up Charlie Wyke after a clever run down the left, allowing Wyke to slide the ball home from close range.
The quick response was admirable, but Portsmouth were clearly a dangerous opponent, with their threats from both open play and set pieces stretching Sunderland’s defence, which was, frankly, all over the place at times.
It was definitely a superior performance from the away side, as Sunderland struggled to construct any meaningful attacks, and Grant Leadbitter found himself unable to control the game as he has done in recent matches.
Eventually, Portsmouth’s pressure told again, as John Marquis fired home from an acute angle following a dreadfully misplaced pass from Leadbitter.
We managed to stagger into the break at 1-2, but it was looking less than positive.
Was this yet another ‘reality check’?
Had we overestimated the team’s ability following the promising start to the season?
We certainly needed to get going, and swiftly.
The second half began much more positively, with both Hume and Lynden Gooch whipping in some dangerous crosses, and the team as a whole showing much more urgency.
Portsmouth definitely weren’t playing at the same level, and for a while, it looked as though the salvage job might be possible. The leveller didn’t come, however, with headers from Wyke and Will Grigg, and a scuffed shot from Hume the closest we came to getting back on terms.
It was truly a grind to watch, and simply not the kind of performance an automatic promotion-winning team should be turning in.
And then, just when it looked as though things had bottomed out, our misery was compounded with the concession of a penalty – and a subsequent red card – by the already-booked Luke O’Nien, who had been walking a tightrope for at least twenty minutes.
The penalty was duly converted by Marquis. 1-3, and a scoreline that certainly did not flatter a very efficient Portsmouth side.
Sunderland and ‘missed opportunities’ are more or less synonymous with each other nowadays, and this was another example of it.
Just when we seemed to be quietly and stealthily moving into the automatic promotion picture, this absolute mess of a performance was turned in.
Other teams’ results went in our favour, meaning we’re still only four points off second place.
But horror shows like today must be few and far between if we want to climb into that all-important top two.
The pressure has now been turned up yet again, and our fixture against Rochdale on Tuesday night certainly needs to be the start of a convincing winning run.