Sunderland's abysmal season leaves them as distinct underdogs when Mauricio Pochettino's often irresistible Tottenham Hotspur visit the Stadium of Light on Tuesday intent on keeping alive their slim Premier League title hopes.
To snatch an improbable win, manager David Moyes' bottom-of-the-table side would need to raise their game to exceptional levels barely even hinted at, let alone seen, in their 22 league games played so far this term.
The problems confronting Moyes have grown significantly worse ever since the latest defeat on Jan. 21, when West Bromwich Albion tormented Sunderland's ragged defence in a comfortable 2-0 win in which goalkeeper Ben Foster remained untested all match.
The sale of the club's joint-second top scorer, left-back Patrick van Aanholt, to relegation rivals Crystal Palace -- subject to a medical examination -- is a potentially severe blow that puts further pressure on Moyes.
News of Van Aanholt's intended departure was quickly followed by an announcement that centre-back Papy Djilobodji has been banned for four matches after being caught on camera striking the face of Albion's skipper Darren Fletcher towards the end of the game at West Brom.
Victor Anichebe, the former West Brom man whose muscle-power and holding skills promised so much when he began a fruitful partnership with striker Jermain Defoe in November, is out with a torn medial ligament for at least 10 weeks.
And with sorely limited resources to fund essential team strengthening, Moyes has so far managed to recruit only veteran defender Joleon Lescott, a free agent after his contract with AEK Athens was terminated last November. It is essential that Moyes is able to use the expected fee of £12 million for van Aanholt to plug gaps.
With an alarming injury list that already sees Lee Cattermole, Jan Kirchhoff, Jordan Pickford, Steven Pienaar, Duncan Watmore and Paddy McNair sidelined, Moyes' room for manoeuvre with his existing squad is negligible.
Didier Ndong, Wahbi Khazri and Lamine Kone will be available for the Spurs game after their absences at the Africa Nations Cup. Their return is welcome but they would all need to improve markedly on their most recent Sunderland form to make an impact.
Sunderland's one real advantage on Tuesday night could be the passion and encouragement of the home support, though this would be silenced -- and, in all probability, the stands emptied -- in the event of a first-half collapse of the sort seen all too often at the Stadium of Light. The three-goal burst from Stoke City in the last home game, on Jan. 14, prompted thousands to leave early.
Despite the current gloom on Wearside, Sunderland have become masters of unlikely escape acts during the past nine seasons of Premier League status.
Can Moyes somehow confound the doubters, many of them found within a Sunderland support accustomed to bitter disappointment, and inspire his depleted and much-criticised squad to another admirable rise from the foot of the table?
The fixture list for the remainder of the season offers plenty of games, especially at home, from which wins would ordinarily be considered well within reach. A narrow defeat to Spurs, if accompanied by a heart-warmingly committed and competitive display, would be bearable if followed by victories at relegation rivals Crystal Palace and at home to Southampton.
The run before Christmas that brought four wins in seven games showed that Sunderland are capable of picking up points. Against that, the injury list has become even more troubling since that winning sequence ended after the 1-0 defeat of Watford on Dec. 17. And there has been little to excite fans in transfer window speculation, not least because a downbeat Moyes has made it clear he has no scope to acquire players likely to "make a big difference."
For the revival to occur, the manager need to pull off a major surprise or two in what is left of the window, get what key players he can back from injury and hope that three relegation-haunted rivals suffer serious slumps.
The worry is that even that would leave Moyes with the task of getting players who struggle to keep a clean sheet and create chances to defend a great deal better, match opponents in midfield and feed Defoe with the service he needs to add to a hugely impressive 12-goal tally which only his individual skills and appetite for scoring have made possible.
It is an uphill battle by any standards. But it would seem a great deal more winnable if a mighty show of defiance and character produced an unexpected result on Tuesday.