Sunderland's realistic chances of starting the new season in an upbeat style to which supporters are frankly unaccustomed took a knock when the fixture compilers conjured a trip to Manchester City for the opening game.
With Pep Guardiola widely tipped to reclaim the Premier League title for City, Sunderland would have faced a formidable test whatever the Wearsiders' progress in their preseason transfer dealings. As matters stand, not enough has happened to make avoidance of defeat seem more than a remote possibility.
Recent history also shows that Sunderland do not get off to flying starts. Darren Bent was the scorer against Bolton when Sunderland last began a season with a win, seven years ago.
There have since been creditable opening-day draws at Liverpool and Arsenal and a decent if flattering finish in 10th position in 2011. But the overall pattern has been for the club to struggle at first, things getting little or no better until a late flurry of results -- including defeats suffered by others at the bottom of the table -- secures survival.
David Moyes, Sunderland's ninth manager in a Premier League run entering its 10th season, was the obvious choice to replace Sam Allardyce once the Football Association finally completed its laborious selection process for the England job. But with the uncertainty holding up transfers until Moyes' appointment, he faced a stiff challenge as he set about assembling his squad of choice.
Even without a new face to call on, there were encouraging results, notably a 1-1 draw against Borussia Dortmund, in an unbeaten sequence of preseason friendlies. But it would be unwise to read too much into such games. Much more important, and for the wrong reasons, is the club's apparent willingness to allow an absolutely key figure of last season's battle against relegation, Lamine Kone, to leave so soon after his January arrival from Ligue 1 club Lorient.
Older supporters have been saying they must think back to Charlie Hurley and Dave Watson, as long ago as the 1960s and 1970s, for a Sunderland centre-back possessing the same commanding qualities, enhanced by an ability to make and score goals at the other end. Few will easily forget the two he grabbed against his main suitors, Everton, to ensure safety in May.
Unless it becomes clear his hand has been forced by budgetary considerations, Moyes will be judged harshly if the players he brings in are simply not of the same standard. His first signing, Papy Djilobodji, who can also play at centre-back, will find himself under pressure to make an early impact. The latest acquisitions, 21-year-old defenders Paddy McNair and Donald Love bought for combined fees of £5.5m from Manchester United, may show serious promise but still have a lot to prove as they develop.
Further new signings may be imminent but the failure, to date, to bring loan stars Yann M'Vila and DeAndre Yedlin back to the Stadium of Light leaves the new boss with a threadbare squad. No-one should complain about the loss of those who have left the club -- Steven Fletcher, Wes Brown, Will Buckley, Adam Matthews and Danny Graham -- but the team the manager is able to field at the Etihad is unlikely to have a look of permanence.
The Kone saga has echoes of the gamble Sunderland took when selling Bent to Aston Villa in the transfer window of January 2011. A run of nine games without a win raised familiar fears, though Steve Bruce, then manager, could counter that the decision was vindicated by the late recovery that gave owner Ellis Short the top 10 place he had demanded.
However Sunderland line up on Saturday, it is just possible that a superhuman effort at the back and a slice of magic -- or luck -- up front will confound the pundits and give Moyes his dream start. Striker Jermain Defoe, still a class act at 33, could be available to help that happen after recovering from a thigh injury. But reflecting on a City starting XI that may well include John Stones, Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero, Fernandinho and the magnificent David Silva, such an outcome remains improbable.
The Wearsiders' recent record at Manchester City shows one excellent performance, a 2-2 draw in 2014, that should have been a win, and several defeats, with some hammerings among them. Another heavy loss is at least a possibility against the stunning collection of talent at Guardiola's disposal unless Sunderland show the commitment and desire that narrowly got them out of trouble last season.
Moyes may privately limit his hopes to sneaking a draw or keeping the margin of defeat tight. Either would be acceptable provided his home debut as manager eight days later on Aug. 21 rewards fans with a derby win against newly promoted Middlesbrough.