Sunderland resurgent but Sam Allardyce now faces critical spell
Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce and his star striker Jermain Defoe return to former club West Ham on Saturday, needing a bright start to an eight-day spell that could be crucial in deciding their Premier League future.
The last visit Sunderland will make to Upton Park, with West Ham moving to the Olympic Stadium in time for next season, will be followed four days later by a home game to Crystal Palace and four days after that with a trip to Southampton.
Confidence lifted by the hard-fought but deserved 2-1 win over Manchester United in their last game, Sunderland must again be at their best to frustrate the high-flying Hammers.
Slaven Bilic has led them to seventh in the league and comfortably into the FA Cup quarterfinals while playing, according to David Blackmore from the Blowing Bubbles fan site: "With the style, passion and entertainment that we were crying out for during the Allardyce era."
But whatever West Ham fans now make of his four years in charge from 2011 until the final game of last season, Allardyce is entitled to believe he has made a decent start to managing Sunderland and has organised and strengthened resources sufficiently to offer the home side a strong test.
Central defender Lamine Kone and attacker Wahbi Khazri, both signed in January, have made an impressive early impact. Khazri scored against Manchester United and it was Kone's powerful header that led to the David De Gea own goal for Sunderland's winner.
Jan Kirchhoff, most effective playing just in front of the back four, is fit again and will be anxious to maintain the improvement he has shown since a disastrous debut at Tottenham on Jan. 16, when he conceded a penalty and deflected a Christian Eriksen shot into his own net in a 4-1 defeat.
And among the players Allardyce inherited, Defoe continues to prove he can still score almost as freely at 33 as he did when starting his professional career at West Ham in 1999. In the build-up to Saturday, much has been made of the threat from West Ham's talented French midfielder Dimitri Payet. He certainly has the ability and goalscoring flair to turn any game, but the Hammers' fine season has demonstrated that simply keeping him quiet will not be enough for Sunderland. It may be too early for striker Diafra Sakho to return from injury but Andy Carroll could be back and is capable of causing aerial problems for Sunderland's inconsistent defence.
The importance of the three games between this Saturday and next will be obvious to Allardyce as he seeks a way out of the bottom three. Newcastle United's inactivity, with their scheduled opponents Manchester City involved in Sunday's Capital One Cup final against Liverpool, means a win at Upton Park would lift Sunderland out of the bottom three unless Norwich City manage a surprising win at Leicester City. Even a draw would be enough if Norwich are beaten.
The home clash with Palace would then hand Sunderland a great opportunity to begin a climb up the table towards eventual safety, especially if defeat can be avoided at Southampton on March 5.
Ominously, each of the corresponding fixtures last season ended in defeat for Sunderland. There was no shame in losing 1-0 to West Ham in the first game of Dick Advocaat's brief stint as manager. But the other fixtures are remembered for two of Sunderland's worst performances of a dismal season, a 4-1 home defeat to Palace that had fans emptying the stands and a horrendous 8-0 drubbing at Southampton.
Thanks to Allardyce's wise moves in the transfer window, the squad now seems significantly stronger and has a mixture of experience and quality that might just be enough to secure a 10th successive season in the top flight.
The club's past three games have brought four points -- at least three more than many expected considering Sunderland have travelled to Liverpool and hosted both Manchester United and City. Five or more from the three to come would encourage even the gloomiest of supporters to see survival as a realistic ambition.
Colin is ESPN FC's Sunderland blogger. Follow him on Twitter at @salutsunderland