There has been a far more settled complexion to Sunderland’s starting XI over recent weeks after Sam Allardyce named the Black Cats’ first unchanged line-up in the Premier League since May 2014.
But while Allardyce has now largely landed upon his strongest side, the Sunderland boss still faces several dilemmas over who tackles Newcastle United in a Tyne-Wear derby which will have huge repercussions in the battle for survival.
1. Does Younes Kaboul or John O’Shea lead Sunderland from central defence?
The January capture of Lamine Kone has proved to be an ideal foil for the wise, old head of John O’Shea after the Ivory Coast international has injected power and pace into the back-line.
O’Shea has been able to concentrate on conducting those alongside him, and boasts that crucial experience of handling these white-hot derby occasions.
But the captain has not been able to break Sunderland’s four-month wait for a clean sheet.
That remained the case at Southampton, when Younes Kaboul took the armband after Allardyce opted not to take a chance on O’Shea; forced off against Crystal Palace four days earlier with a calf problem.
Yet Sunderland were only 90 seconds away from a shut-out at St Mary’s after Kaboul and Kone had immediately gelled as a double-act and proved to be dogged in thwarting the threat posed by Southampton striker Graziano Pelle.
When O’Shea was introduced to the fray in an attempt to preserve Sunderland’s one-goal advantage, he gave Virgil van Dijk far too much room to stroke home the leveller.
For all O’Shea’s leadership credentials, there is little pressing need to make a defensive change.
2. Who spearheads the Sunderland attack?
Jermain Defoe’s frustration at being named among the substitutes in October’s Wear-Tyne derby was quickly tempered when he entered the fray before half-time after injury to the ineffective Ola Toivonen.
Defoe was again dropped to the bench at Southampton, yet the derby hero from 11 months ago will surely earn a recall to the starting XI at St James’s Park.
Allardyce deployed Dame N’Doye in his favoured central role to offer extra height and an out-ball for those occasions when Sunderland were under the cosh at St Mary’s.
But N’Doye barely won an aerial challenge and other than his display in the win against Manchester United, the on-loan Trabzonspor man has been the most underwhelming of Sunderland’s January recruits.
After Defoe came off the bench to net his first goal in four games, he looks certain to take N’Doye’s place.
3. Does Allardyce continue his bid to lift the Jack Rodwell curse?
It’s a staggering statistic that Sunderland have failed to win a Premier League game over the last two years when Jack Rodwell has been included in the starting XI.
Yet they were only 90 seconds away from breaking that curse at Southampton, where the midfielder again did alright alongside Yann M’Vila and Jan Kirchhoff.
There is a better balance to the midfield trio when Rodwell lines up alongside the more defensive-minded M’Vila and Kirchhoff, with the £10million man again going close to scoring when faced with a difficult volley from 15 yards out.
But is this the game for the mentally questionable Rodwell?
Allardyce has Lee Cattermole available gain after a nasty clash of heads against Crystal Palace left the Teessider with concussion and two badly swollen eyes.
And Seb Larsson’s return from three months on the treatment table gives Allardyce an option for added industry.
4. Is there a case for gambling on Emmanuel Eboue?
It would be an almighty shock if Allardyce handed a Sunderland debut to short-term signing Emmanuel Eboue at St James’s, considering the ex-Arsenal man’s chronic lack of competitive action.
Eboue hasn’t completed 90 minutes of first-team action in more than a year, let alone played in such an unforgiving encounter.
But while DeAndre Yedlin has generally performed well since taking the place of the error-prone Billy Jones, all of Southampton’s threat came down that right-hand side of Sunderland’s defence.
Eboue has an abundance of ‘big-game’ experience from his Arsenal days, and has the character to be completely unfazed by the ferocity of the occasion at St James’s.
5. Where does fit-again Jeremain Lens come into the picture?
There is little prospect of Lens starting at St James’s after the Dutch international has been sidelined for a month due to surgery on a hernia.
With Fabio Borini and Wahbi Khazri performing well too, there is minimal prospect of Lens coming straight back into the side.
But the 28-year-old offers an extra attacking option on a bench which has not been packed with game-changers over recent weeks, due to both Lens and Duncan Watmore’s presence on the treatment table.
If Sunderland are chasing the game, or are struggling to find a breakthrough, then Lens gives Sam Allardyce food for thought.