NINE POINTS from four games has drastically altered the entire direction of Sunderland’s season.
Suddenly, the Black Cats can realistically begin to ignore the poor sides occupying the bottom three places and begin to see whether those lofty summer hopes were not so foolhardy after all.
But the transformation of Sunderland’s three creative linchpins has been a touch slower to gather pace.
It has taken until December for Stephane Sessegnon, James McClean and Adam Johnson to hit top stride and, even now, there is a sense that there is still more to come from the trio.
Perhaps the slow progress has been down to confidence. Perhaps it has simply been a question of time, to integrate the summer’s big-money buys into Martin O’Neill’s system.
But all three played an integral role in another famous win over Manchester City yesterday, albeit every single member of Sunderland’s starting XI made a telling contribution.
O’Neill’s philosophy has always revolved around profiting from the counter-attack.
Earlier in the campaign, Sunderland’s threat on the break was stodgy and sluggish, allowing sides to haul men back by the time the Black Cats reached the edge of the area.
But gradually the fluency has crept back into Sunderland’s play.
They are still not a finely-tuned machine, but, with the confidence growing after victory over Southampton and after surviving the opening 25-minute onslaught yesterday, Sunderland began to attack with real tempo and purpose.
The crowd immediately noticed it and bought into it with a roar that has not been witnessed at the Stadium of Light all season.
Johnson predictably stole the headlines against his former club after profiting from what appeared a clear foul by Craig Gardner on Pablo Zabaleta to angle a drive beyond the out-of-position Joe Hart.
There was no hint of striking lucky from the England winger.
For all Johnson may often frustrate with a lacklustre final ball, he provides moments of quality which are the difference between victory and not.
He did it at St Mary’s when he drifted unguarded to the left and cut the ball back into the area and did it again yesterday by recognising that Hart had strayed too far to his right.
But while Johnson inflicted the mortal blow, it was his co-creators who did much to preserve the advantage.
Sessegnon and McClean were a constant menace on the counter-attack and both spurned golden opportunities to register a killer second goal.
But it was their ceaseless work-rate to prevent defenders having an easy ride coming forward which was to prove so crucial.
McClean, now very much banishing talk of being a one-season wonder, enjoyed by far his best game of the season, yet that was as much to do with his defensive work as his attacking contribution.
The Republic of Ireland cap covered every blade in marauding up, down and sideways and continued to do so when moved into central midfield for the final 10 minutes – a cute ploy by O’Neill, knowing the former Derry City man’s engine.
Sessegnon, dropped into an almost central midfield role for the final 30 minutes, was equally tireless.
For all his natural talent, Sessegnon complements it with good old-fashioned graft and he was crucially able to relieve the pressure in that late onslaught by twisting and turning into a few yards of space and breaking forward.
Neither Johnson nor Steven Fletcher shirked their duties either and it was that clichéd ability to defend from the front which saw Sunderland overcome adversity against City last season and again yesterday.
Those at the back deserved an equal share of the plaudits.
It was a magnificent collective determination to thwart City at all costs – typified just after the hour when Sunderland’s dogged scrambling saw them block three successive shots in the area from the visitors.
With Sunderland forming an impenetrable defensive line, City increasingly fell into last year’s trap of trying to play their neat passing triangles in too confined areas on the edge of the penalty box and, other than Sergio Aguero’s chance in behind, they created nothing clear-cut in the second half.
Individually, Sunderland’s defensive-minded players all shone.
Simon Mignolet produced a series of stunning stops in the opening 25 minutes, when a breakthrough for City could easily have seen them coast to a comfortable victory.
Jack Colback stood tall in the size mismatch with Yaya Toure, who increasingly appeared to lose all composure with referee Kevin Friend, although he admittedly wasn’t the only one.
Matt Kilgallon, who shone in both games against City last season, slotted in seamlessly alongside Carlos Cuellar, as the stand-in skipper displayed the necessary leadership for the back-line.
Craig Gardner continues to prove a real asset at right-back and, for many, looks a far more accomplished performer there than in his favoured midfield role.
And then there was Danny Rose.
Admiration on the terraces for the England Under-21 left-back grows by the game and there were again chants of “Marty, sign him up” from the Stadium of Light yesterday.
The way Rose sprinted back to intercept James Milner in the second half, when City had released the ex-Newcastle winger with a ball over the top, only ingratiated him further into Wearside affection.
Sunderland will be without the ineligible Rose against parent club Spurs on Saturday and that is a significant blow for O’Neill. But by beating City, it must surely be a case of mission-accomplished from these three games against daunting opposition, with few expecting a three-point total haul.
Not that O’Neill will see it as such and he will be eager to ensure that Sunderland use victory over City as a launchpad towards the top half, as was the case last season.
But interestingly, Sir Alex Ferguson remarked last night how December was always such an “important month” after Sunderland’s victory helped Manchester United to a seven-point lead at the Premier League summit.
December has already proved to be a turning point of Sunderland’s season and the turning point for their underperforming star trio.