RICKY ALVAREZ needed a night like this.
Since arriving at the Stadium of Light last summer, the Argentine international has had a relatively miserable time of it.
His ability wasn’t in doubt. It was immediately evident from some of his substitute cameos that he was a box of tricks.
But he needed to convert that promise into a match-winning display, when he shone from the start and proved to be a thorn in the opposition’s side throughout.
Almost six months after penning a loan deal from Inter Milan, Alvarez finally showed that all that potential can be channelled with big rewards. He came of age in a Sunderland shirt.
Finally, Sunderland fans saw what Gus Poyet and his coaching staff have been raving about from the training field for months.
If Sunderland are to make Alvarez’s loan deal permanent next summer, then the £7.5million clause suddenly doesn’t look so daunting after all.
It wasn’t just the stunning individual goal with 15 minutes to go – slaloming beyond two Fulham defenders before smashing the ball into the far corner.
No, Alvarez was Sunderland’s outlet throughout – twisting and turning away as the sole wide midfielder, while Steven Fletcher and Jermain Defoe worked in a relatively orthodox front two.
Fulham doubled up on Alvarez as they realised what a threat he posed, but the desperate last-gasp blocks couldn’t last for ever.
With Adam Johnson returning for Saturday’s trip to Swansea, Poyet has some welcome selection decisions ahead of him over the next few days.
That winning goal was a crucial one for Poyet’s men – and not just because it sent an incredible 4,000-strong following delirious by sending the Black Cats into the fifth round of a wide open FA Cup.
Sunderland needed to harness the momentum from last weekend’s victory over Burnley by putting together back-to-back wins for the first time this season.
Whenever Sunderland have previously been presented with a platform on which to build on this season, they have fluffed their lines – notably the 8-0 drubbing at Southampton after the Stoke win and the Boxing Day loss against an awful Hull side, five days after the Tyne-Wear derby.
But now confidence is beginning to seap back into Sunderland’s ranks.
Should Sunderland come away with anything from Swansea, then this will have been a very good week for the Black Cats.
Fulham could have no complaints at their elimination.
Sunderland dominated throughout, even if they typically did it the hard way.
The visitors enjoyed more than 60 per cent possession and drew a string of saves out of Marcus Bettinelli during the first half, yet trailed at the interval after conceding the scruffiest of set piece goals.
Ross McCormack’s corner wasn’t deal with at the near post, Cauley Woodrow was allowed to get in a shot from point-blank range which smashed against the underside of the bar before Hugo Rodallega bundled the ball home.
It wasn’t pretty.
That it came completely against the run of play, was no comfort whatsoever.
Sunderland had begun the game with a real purpose, with some eye-catching interplay between Emanuele Giaccherini, Alvarez and Fletcher - drafted in as a last-minute replacement for Connor Wickham, who pulled out injured after the warm-up.
Poyet’s men were full of beans after the Burnley victory and looked like they really meant business.
But regardless of the standard of the opposition, those periods of one-sidedness have to be capitalised on.
Through a combination of poor crossing, bad finishing and smart goalkeeping, Fulham were let off the hook.
Time and again, Fulham’s defence was stretched as Sunderland got into great areas down the flanks, only for nothing to come of it.
Bettinelli made a couple of smart saves to keep out near post efforts from Gomez and Alvarez, while he was off his line like a rabbit to get to the ball first when Fletcher looked to be clean through.
But it was Fletcher who was the biggest culprit 15 minutes in when Fulham conceded possession midway inside their half and Giaccherini fed the Scot down the left-hand side of the area.
Fletcher’s first touch was heavy and he took it too wide, albeit it still required excellent reflexes from Bettinelli to tip his shot across goal wide of the far post.
The second half began in the same manner, with Fulham camped in their own half, but Sunderland were just unable to unleash that meaningful shot or piercing cross.
That almost changed when Alvarez cut inside off the right and saw his shot deflect into the path of Patrick van Aanholt on the far side of the area, but the Dutchman scuffed an ugly effort wide of the near post on his weaker right foot.
But when the equaliser did arrive, it was accompanied by a huge slice of fortune.
Van Aanholt’s left wing cross took a huge deflection and was looping harmlessly towards Bettinelli, only for the Fulham keeper to juggle the ball into his own net, with the linesman rightly adjudging that it had crossed the line.
With half-an-hour to go, that provided the impetus to chase the winner - Giaccherini curling a shot inches wide of the post and Bettinelli slightly redeeming himself when he was off his line well to save at the feet of Alvarez.
But Alvarez wasn’t to be denied. His stunning goal gave Sunderland the advantage, and there was minimal threat from Fulham in the dying stages.
Sunderland simply rubber-stamped their progress with a stoppage time penalty after a clumsy challenge from behind on Graham, before Jordi Gomez coolly converted the spot-kick.
Poyet’s men are upwardly mobile again.
After Sunderland won at Fulham last season, they took seven points from the next three games, progressed in the FA Cup and won on penalties in the League Cup semi-final second leg.
A similarly positive next few games would be most welcome.
Fulham: Bettinelli, Grimmer, Hutchinson, Bodurov, Stafylidis, Tunnicliffe, Fofana (Christensen 83), Kacaniklic (Roberts 83), McCormack, Woodrow, Rodallega. Subs Not Used: Kiraly, Zverotic, Dembele, Williams, Burn. Booked: Woodrow, Bodurov, Fofana, McCormack, Hutchinson. Goals: Rodallega 28.
Sunderland: Mannone, Reveillere, O’Shea, Vergini, Van Aanholt, Bridcutt, Gomez, Giaccherini (Brown 90), Alvarez (Agnew 87), Fletcher (Graham 74), Defoe. Subs Not Used: Pantilimon, Coates. Booked: Bridcutt, Giaccherini, Alvarez. Goals: Bettinelli 61 og, Alvarez 75, Gomez 90 pen.
Att: 14,777 Ref: Paul Tierney (Lancashire).