LONG, hard looks are required to confidently predict players who will still be at the Stadium of Light next season.
Should Sunderland succumb to relegation, then Gus Poyet will struggle to still have 10 of the current squad to pick from by the time the summer transfer window eventually slams shut.
The Black Cats’ descent into the Championship isn’t such a formality after narrowing the gap to six points last night, albeit they still boast a game in hand on fourth-bottom Norwich.
Victory – an outcome which would have been thoroughly deserved – was the result they really needed at the Etihad, though, to give momentum towards a miraculous escape.
But if Sunderland’s excellent efforts to swing the title race Liverpool and Chelsea’s way are ultimately too little, too late, then Poyet’s starting XI in the Championship will be unrecognisable.
John O’Shea, Wes Brown, Vito Mannone, Liam Bridcutt and a couple of youngsters. Danny Graham maybe? Cabral? Valentin Roberge? Modibo Diakite?
Connor Wickham’s name can now very much be added to that list. He may even have gone to the top of it.
Although Wickham has proven himself in the second tier, there had to be doubts over his future at Sunderland – regardless of relegation – with only a year to run on his contract and several Championship sides keen on acquiring his services.
But last night he came of age in a Sunderland shirt.
That £8million Sunderland splashed out on the then 17-year-old back in 2011 may have been an inflated price and it was a gamble that backfired on Steve Bruce to invest so much in the future, when the Black Cats so clearly needed a striker for the here and now.
But finally, three years on, that huge transfer fee looks like reaping rewards. On the evidence of last night, Wickham could be lethal in the Premier League, let alone the Championship.
Wickham’s display was not out of the blue.
Against Everton on Saturday, the 21-year-old held the ball up well and kept the Toffees’ defenders on their toes. That’s not something which has applied too often to Sunderland’s frontmen this season.
He carried on in that vein last night, even before his second-half double.
At 6ft 4in, Wickham should be a physical thorn in the side of the opposition defences, yet it takes time to learn how to make the most of that bulk against seasoned centre-halves.
He bullied Martin Demichelis and went toe-to-toe with the Argentinian’s central defensive partner Vincent Kompany too. Matching the latter was a far more telling contribution of his progress.
Perhaps Sunderland’s system plays to Wickham’s strengths.
The more likely theory is that he has just grown into his own body. It’s difficult to learn the evil arts of being a centre-forward when you still can’t legally buy a pint.
Wickham had the confidence too to bring the ball down, turn and look for options, rather than getting rid of it at the first possible opportunity.
The question mark after a bright first-half display was whether Wickham could complement that hold-up play by offering a goal threat.
Boy, did he show that he could!
It was a deft, delicate touch into the unguarded net to finish off a free-flowing move for the equaliser after excellent contributions from substitutes Nacho Scocco and Emanuele Giaccherini.
But the second was a thing of real beauty.
Giaccherini again did superbly in providing the assist as he broke through tackles from a City free-kick and raced up the left flank before squaring the ball with an inch-perfect pass.
Yet for Wickham to have the composure and confidence to unleash a scorching right-footed drive beyond Joe Hart after a lung-bursting run from his own area, demonstrated his development.
The encouraging aspect for Poyet, after weeks of seeing his side flop following their previous meeting with Manchester City, was that there was not a single weak link among his outfield players.
City were poor, it’s impossible to escape that conclusion.
Injured pair Yaya Toure and David Silva were clearly big misses, but complacency seemed to set in after going ahead in the second minute and they were horribly flat.
The crowd were equally subdued.
At times, it was difficult to believe Manuel Pellegrini’s side were still fighting for the title. Floods of supporters immediately marched out of the Etihad after Wickham’s second goal.
But, as bad as City were, Sunderland were superb.
Maybe it is the continued knack of playing well against the big boys. Maybe it is just that the pressure is off Sunderland, with no-one giving them a prayer of remaining in the Premier League.
But if Poyet’s side had been 3-1 up by the interval, City couldn’t have complained after John O’Shea (twice) and Fabio Borini spurned glorious opportunities.
The midfield trio, particularly Jack Colback, controlled possession for long periods, while also hoovering up the 50-50s and the loose balls.
Adam Johnson ran with determination and purpose against his former employers and could have boasted three assists to his name after putting chances on a platter for O’Shea, Borini and Colback.
Even Santiago Vergini, whose contribution had been questionable to say the least in his previous Sunderland performances, looked far more assured as a replacement for the suspended Phil Bardsley at right-back.
It wasn’t a completely alien position for Vergini after playing at full-back on several occasions in his native Argentina, but, away from the magnifying glass of centre-half, the on-loan Estudiantes man seemed less anxious.
In a season where he has been one of Sunderland’s few consistent performers though, it was Mannone, of all people, who endured a moment which will haunt his dreams for weeks.
The Italian was almost like a cat chasing a ball of wool, as Samir Nasri’s shot squirmed away from him and rolled in agonising slow motion into the bottom corner.
Mannone was left with his head in his hands. He didn’t even have the comfort of being blameless for the opener after being caught at his near post by Fernandinho.
It was an excellent show of support from the travelling Sunderland fans to chant Mannone’s name as he came over to them afterwards.
Poyet was equally supportive; offering the former Arsenal man a big hug before he made his way down the tunnel.
It would be grossly unfair to hang Mannone out to dry.
Little blood will be on his hands for Sunderland’s relegation, if that is to be their fate.
But without that error, Sunderland genuinely would have had a sniff of performing something remarkable over the final five games.