SUNDERLAND’S victory over Stoke City at the Stadium of Light was the mirror image of their defeat at the Britannia back in November.
Once again the losing side had a man controversially sent off.
Once again the team with 11 men were in danger of being overwhelmed by the team with 10.
Once again, Stoke boss Mark Hughes was at his spikiest.
But this time it was Sunderland who emerged victors; Stoke losers, in a game which somehow felt far more significant to both teams than their original encounter had.
Back in November, when Wes Brown was wrongfully sent off, Stoke’s victory hoisted them up towards mid-table but it was questionable whether they could stay there, so average were they that day.
Sunderland stayed rooted to the foot of the table but the spirit they showed – especially after victories over Man City and Newcastle in the days beforehand – proffered hope they just might not be dead in the water.
So it has proved.
And with last night’s victory over Stoke giving the league table such a better complexion for Sunderland fans it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the Black Cats – one of the very few teams in the bottom half of the table with upward momentum – might not be Championship-bound after all.
Sunderland have now lost just two games in their last 13 – and one of those was the Capital One Cup semi-final second leg at Man United, which they eventually triumphed on penalties.
Steven Fletcher and Lee Cattermole did not make the starting line up last night, but both had been struggling with injuries. Fletcher was on the bench and Cattermole not fit enough to make the side.
Regardless of their absence though, it looked one of Sunderland’s strongest possible starting line-ups at kick-off.
And the Black Cats began as though they meant business, totally dominating the opening stages although with only a fierce Seb Larsson shot from range in the fifth, parried by Asmir Begovic, to show for their troubles.
That changed though in the 17th minute though when Sunderland took the lead thanks to Adam Johnson’s sixth goal in six games.
Fabio Borini played a part with a powerful drive from 20 yards but it was all about the goalkeeper’s mistake – Begovic could only take the pace off the shot and the alert Johnson nipped in, pinched the ball away from the keeper and slotted home from a narrow angle close range
Stoke responded and Peter Crouch brought a great reaction save out of Vito Mannone who, as the half progressed, was the only person standing between his side and an equaliser.
In the 39th minute Charlie Adam chipped a lovely ball forward onto the head of Ryan Shawcross who, unmarked seven yards out, headed what seemed a certain goal, only for Mannone to block.
Stoke threatened to start the second half in the same way they finished the first, but the game swung again soon after.
Jozy Altidore had been at the heart of all that was good about Sunderland’s first-half performance, and his powerhouse performance continued as Marc Wilson joining Steven Nzonzi in the book for fouls on the big American.
And the game lurched dramatically in Sunderland’s favour in the 53rd minute when Altidore chased a long-ball forward and went down under a challenge from Nzonzi just outside the box.
Stoke were to argue it was a soft sending off and replays suggested they might have been right but the Stoke man still pulled back at the striker.
It was Nzonzi’s second yellow of the game and he had to go.
This could have been the moment for the floodgates to open for Sunderland and for a few minutes it looked as though it would be as Begovic saved from Altidore and Seb Larsson.
But with 20 minutes remaining, it was Sunderland who were the nervier side.
And they might have paid the price in the 74th minute when City’s new signing Peter Odemwingie received the ball on the right of the box, nutmegged Jack Colback and drove in a low shot which Mannone did well to save.
A Colback foul on Geoff Cameron in the 76th minute gave City a free-kick on the right of the box and Adam shot’s hit the wall before the Scot followed up on the rebound and Mannone made another adept save.
With 10 minutes to go, Sunderland had gone into complete panic mode and it looked as though Stoke had 11 men and Sunderland had 10.
Shawcross almost forced one over the line in the 80th minute but the bounced away off the crossbar. Somehow Sunderland saw it through to five minutes from time when Ki played in Borini whose shot was blocked out for a corner.
The eventual ball across the six-yard box only needed a finishing touch but this was not going to be an easy end to the game for Sunderland and the chance went begging.
Colback fouled Odemwingie to allow Stoke the chance to punt the ball into the box as the 90 minutes rolled by and four nervy minutes were added on.
But the Black Cats survived to move out of the relegation zone for the first time in 151 days and send them into Saturday’s Tyne-Wear derby on a high.
SUNDERLAND: Mannone 9, Bardsley 6 (Celustka 46, 6), O’Shea 7, Brown 7, Alonso 6, Larsson 6, Ki 6, Colback 6, Johnson 7 (Gardner 87), Borini 7, Altidore 8 (Fletcher 67, 5). Subs not used: Wickham, Giaccherini, Vergini, Ustari. Booked: Bardsley (45), Borini (79)
STOKE: Begovic, Cameron, Shawcross, Wilson, Pieters, Odemwingie (Guidetti 90), Nzonzi, Adam, Whelan, Assaidi (Arnautovic 71), Crouch (Walters 65). Subs not used: Sorensen, Muniesa, Palacios, Ireland. Booked: Nzonzi (34), Adam (40), Wilson (50)
Man of the match: Vito Mannone. Outstanding yet again and the biggest reason why Sunderland won.
Highlight: Adam Johnson’s deft finish gave the winger his sixth goal in six games and Sunderland’s first win at home since victory over Man City in November.
Lowlight: Sunderland gave their fans one of the twitchiest last half-hours of the season – for much of the time it looked as though the Black Cats had 10 men and Stoke 11, not the other way round.
Scorer: Johnson 17
Bookings: Adam 40, Bardsley 45, Wilson 50, Borini 78.
Sent off: N’zonzi 34, 53.
Referee: Bobby Madeley (West Yorks)