Sunderland boss Steve Bruce has urged his players to bounce back from their mauling at Manchester United to set up an exciting conclusion to the season.
A depleted Black Cats side went down 2-0 at Old Trafford yesterday as United maintained their place at the top of the Barclays Premier League table, although the margin of victory did not start to tell the story of the home side's dominance.
Sir Alex Ferguson's men won at a canter as injuries, suspension and ineligibility cut a swathe through opposite number Bruce's resources.
It is testament to the character of the men the former United defender was able to field that they did not leave the red half of Manchester on the wrong end of a drubbing.
However, seventh-placed Sunderland have an early opportunity to make amends from what was only their fourth league defeat of the season when Blackpool head for the Stadium of Light tomorrow.
Only West Ham have won on Wearside to date this season, and that in the Carling Cup, and while Ian Holloway's men will arrive refreshed having not played since December 11 because of the weather, Bruce is confident his side will be a different proposition.
He said: "Now the defining part of the season is upon us. We have got back-to-back home games against Blackpool and Blackburn - can we go and win them both?
"If we can, then we have got an exciting Spring to look forward to.
"It won't be easy, and they will be as fresh as daisies as well. They haven't played at all now for two weeks, so all the little injuries and knocks and all the rest of it that they have had will be okay.
"We will have to treat them with the respect we gave Manchester United.
"Our home form has been terrific and we are a different beast. We hope we go and produce the kind of performance were we are capable of getting a result at home, and we will be trying our utmost."
The Black Cats headed for Old Trafford without the suspended Lee Cattermole, the ineligible Danny Welbeck and with Kieran Richardson missing through illness and Titus Bramble, Michael Turner, John Mensah,
Fraizer Campbell and David Meyler as a result of injury.
Bruce once again asked Ahmed Elmohamady to line up at right-back and
handed Cristian Riveros a rare start in midfield and a debut as a substitute to 20-year-old Jordan Cook, but an early blitz from United left them reeling.
Dimitar Berbatov headed the home side in front with just five minutes gone and but for the woodwork, which spared them twice, and the form of 9million keeper Craig Gordon, the game could have been over long before Berbatov claimed a second after 57 minutes.
Defender Nedum Onuoha said: "It was a very difficult game for us. We started badly and at places like this, you can't afford to do that.
"Once they were 1-0 up, they looked very comfortable. Unfortunately, we
just didn't start well and it affected the rest of the game.
"It didn't help that we didn't start the way we usually do, and we were right on the back foot from the get-go."
However, Bruce is confident his hand will be significantly stronger when he comes to select his team for tomorrow's game.
Cattermole is available after completing his one-match ban, while Welbeck will also resume and Richardson is expected to have recovered.
But perhaps the biggest boost is the possibility of Bramble putting himself in the frame after six weeks on the sidelines with a knee injury, with Turner, Mensah and Meyler also on the mend.
Bruce said: "We have had some wretched bad luck. We went to United without seven players, but we have three or four of them back.
"Titus Bramble has trained for the last three or four days, so he could
be in contention - maybe he just needs another week.
"We have to make do and mend. We can't just go out and buy players because we have five or six missing for one game.
"We hope to have three or four back in the next couple of weeks.
"When you are fresh it does help you. Some of our lads have run a million miles.
"I will be able to freshen it up a little bit. I will have Welbeck and Cattermole. I will have Richardson and probably Bramble.
"That will freshen me up in the midfield areas. That will be a help to us."