Moyes can steer Sunderland to mid-table starting with a result vs. Stoke
Sunderland's quest for season-saving points resumes on Saturday with a visit from Stoke City, a club with the relative stability that David Moyes' side should aim to emulate.
According to one recent forecast, Mark Hughes' team can hope for no better than 12th place at the end of this campaign. Such a slip after three successive ninth-place finishes would doubtless disappoint Stoke supporters. Through the eyes of most Sunderland fans, it would feel like a gift from heaven.
David Moyes is fully aware that the success of his efforts to take Sunderland closer to 12th than their current third-bottom place relies heavily on winning games like Stoke at home. The Premier League record books are in his favour; at home, Sunderland's record against Stoke reads six wins, two draws and no defeats since 2009.
Compare the clubs and history also shows the Wearsiders are the bigger of the two, even if you need to wade far back to prove it -- the most recent of Sunderland's six top-flight titles was won all of 81 years ago. And geographically, in terms of attracting players of quality, there is surely little to choose between them.
Yet Stoke have the look of a reasonably stable mid-table side despite a potentially disastrous start to this season; the Potters went eight games without a win until -- almost inevitably -- they beat Sunderland to begin the recovery that now sees them back up to 11th place.
If Stoke are prone to the occasional wobble, they also entertain fleeting notions of challenging the top six. With Sunderland, the threat of a wobble is constant; it is not by accident that they start more or less every season tipped for relegation and duly proceed to struggle.
Yes, there has been end-of-season excitement in the great escapes under Gus Poyet, Paolo Di Canio, Dick Advocaat and Sam Allardyce, with less dramatic brushes with danger when Roy Keane, Ricky Sbragia, Steve Bruce and Martin O'Neill were in charge. Yes, there is much to be said for being a part of a huge fanbase attached to a club because of what and where it is rather than for what it has recently won. But it would be refreshing to have a period of regularity in which relegation was no more than a distant danger and constant managerial changes seemed unwise even to the most impatient or capricious of owner.
Moyes still has it within his reach to steer Sunderland to the giddy heights of lower mid-table and make years of atrocious underachievement appear a relic of the past. But that will remain an optimistic assessment unless his side can build on a respectable start to 2017, the 2-2 home draw against Liverpool on Jan. 2, by beating the likes of Stoke.
Former Stoke manager Lou Macari, who retains close links with the city, has said much will depend on "which Jermain Defoe" turns up on Saturday. The thought is that if Defoe's head was turned by West Ham's interest, insulting as the £6 million bid surely was for one of the Premier League's top scorers, his heart may not be in the game.
To anyone who has watched the former England man in action, that seems ludicrous. Even at 34, he is as physically fit as ever. He has always given the firm impression of being totally focused on adding to his formidable tally of goals, whether in club or country colours.
Moyes has no need to doubt his striker's professionalism and hunger for more goals. He has also been boosted by signs that Jack Rodwell is at last regaining the form that once made him such a bright prospect in English football. Vito Mannone has proved an assured replacement in goal for the injured Jordan Pickford and Victor Anichebe, if fit again to play any part, could be hugely influential.
Limited in team selection by a long injury list and the absence of players on duty at the African Nations Cup, Moyes must still see this as one of the most winnable of his team's remaining home ties.
With challenging league games ahead at West Brom and Tottenham, plus an FA Cup replay at Burnley next Tuesday, Sunderland cannot afford to lose their proud record of not having lost a league game at home to Stoke since moving to the Stadium of Light in 1997.
Colin is ESPN FC's Sunderland blogger. Follow him on Twitter at @salutsunderland