When I made my pre-season predictions for the Championship this season, I don’t think I or anyone else for that matter would have thought that West Bromwich Albion would be sat in the relegation zone as we creep towards the new year - even despite the fact they had Steve Bruce as manager right up until the second week in October.
The former Sunderland and Newcastle boss left the club in 22nd place, the same position they occupy now, but that doesn’t tell us the full story.
Given that they hold two games in hand over almost every team around them, and that the Championship table is ridiculously tight (they’re only nine points behind Preston in the playoffs, and just seven behind ourselves), a couple of good results under the tutelage of new coach Carlos Corberan could see their prospects looking rosier than they have all season.
In fact, the break for the World Cup was badly timed for the Baggies - leading into it they managed to win three games on the spin, keeping clean sheets in all three victories over Blackpool (1-0), QPR (1-0) and Alex Neil’s Stoke (2-0).
They’re no mugs, and despite tasting defeat in a friendly during the break against La Liga’s bottom side Elche, they’re bound to be well up for this one as they build on the momentum they created in November.
From the likes of Jed Wallace, Tom Rogic, Jake Livermore, Erik Pieters, and Matt Phillips to the younger contingent of Grady Diangana, Jayson Molumby and Brandon Thomas-Asante, this West Brom squad has a nice blend of Championship experience and youth, and certainly shouldn’t be taken lightly.
But, you have to also consider Sunderland’s position here.
Victory would take us up to seventh, just one point outside the playoffs, and we’ve got momentum of our own - winning our last two and perhaps most crucially, last weekend against another side gunning for the playoffs in Millwall. We didn’t just win, but we picked them apart in the second half last weekend and the three-nil scoreline certainly reflects that this Sunderland side can be incredibly dangerous with the amount of quality attacking players we have on show.
Our position in the table has been achieved thus far mainly without the influence of some of our best players - and perhaps most crucially, without the help of Ross Stewart.
He’s arguably our best player and tonight, for the first time since he scored against Rotherham in August, we have the Scotland international striker available for selection.
Whether or not Tony Mowbray picks him to start from the off is a debate I’m sure will rage on before and after the team sheet is announced at 7pm, but I think it’s safe to say we all are really glad to see him back.
He’s become so important to us, and whilst you have to credit our other players with the way they’ve coped in his absence, it’s without question that it’s been tough not having a player with his skillset available to call upon.
Personally, I’d like to see Stewart start on the bench. Ellis Simms and Amad Diallo have turned in some impressive performances of late and adding Stewart straight into the mix disrupts that slightly and probably calls for Tony Mowbray to make a change in system to accommodate two strikers. I see no logical reason to start him tonight, and I think he’s great.
The absolute ideal scenario would be to get him on with half an hour to go as the game is already won and under our control, but the likelihood of that is slim given how decent West Brom actually are.
Our home form under Tony Mowbray has been largely poor, and whilst last weekend’s victory suggests we’re finding a way to turn that form around, it’s still not enough to say convincingly that we’re sorted.
Tonight is an opportunity to do a number of things - to beat a very good team that I think will be around the playoffs come the end of the season; to further solidify our own credentials as a side capable of a top ten finish, and perhaps even more; to get one of our best players back on the pitch and contributing; and perhaps most importantly of all, to put the rest of the division on alert in front of the Sky TV cameras in their primetime slot.
And I haven’t even mentioned the weather. Could “a frozen Monday night in Sunderland” become the new “Tuesday night in Stoke”? It would be nice.