PLENTY of individuals in the Sunderland dressing room deserve honourable mentions for their contributions towards the dramatic upturn in the club’s fortunes.
Adam Johnson has thrust himself back into England contention since the turn of the year.
In-from-the-cold Phil Bardsley has returned to the form which saw him crowned Player of the Season in 2010-11.
Vito Mannone has stepped into the shoes vacated by Simon Mignolet during the summer.
And Fabio Borini has emerged as a firm favourite on the terraces through his work-rate, hunger and goal celebrations.
But at the heart of Sunderland’s recovery under Gus Poyet has been the foundations provided by a far more resolute central defensive partnership.
Sunderland conceded 16 goals in the seven Premier League outings prior to Poyet’s arrival and that tally quickly rose to 20 after the Black Cats were thumped 4-0 at Swansea in the Uruguayan’s first game in charge.
But Poyet has benefited from an asset which neither of his two predecessors were able to utilise - a fully fit Wes Brown.
The 34-year-old blotted his copybook with a third red card of the season - only two of which were justified - against Hull on Saturday.
It was a natural reaction from Brown to bring down Shane Long at any cause, yet it cost Sunderland the game.
But the partnership of Brown alongside ex-Man United team-mate John O’Shea has undoubtedly made Sunderland a far more resolute outfit, with six clean sheets in their 12 league outings together this season.
The slim silver lining is that it wasn’t a red card which will cost Brown the chance to face Manchester City at Wembley in two-and-a-half weeks, but the absence of the former England international puts huge pressure on replacement Santiago Vergini tonight.
Vergini displayed those inevitable teething issues which accompany making the switch from South America to the Premier League when he was introduced against Hull.
Tigers frontman Nikica Jelavic outmuscled the Argentine international on a couple of occasions, while his distribution was hampered by the inevitable butterflies.
Poyet rates Vergini highly and the January arrival would have been pencilled in to feature against Southampton in the FA Cup on Saturday regardless of Brown’s suspension.
But the 25-year-old’s full debut in the Premier League is the most harrowing baptism of fire imaginable.
Manchester City may have failed to find the net over their last two games, yet they are still a formidable force at the Etihad Stadium.
The absence of the injured Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho, plus the loss of City’s 100 per cent home record last week, doesn’t do Sunderland any harm, but the statistics regarding Manuel Pellegrini say everything about the task in front of the Black Cats tonight – 11 wins out of 12 and 42 goals scored in the process.
Poyet may give his defence a helping hand by re-installing Lee Cattermole and if there is to be a time when the Teessider is used alongside Liam Bridcutt in midfield, this may be it.
But Cattermole may simply offer a direct replacement for Bridcutt.
The latter endured a difficult home bow after an excellent debut in the Tyne-Wear derby, and containing Man City behemoth Yaya Toure is no job for a Premier League novice.
Cattermole has proved before – albeit at the Stadium of Light – that he is capable of containing Toure and that will be key if Sunderland are to boast any hope tonight.
City have an array of players that need to be kept under wraps though and although Poyet has produced some miraculous results during his tenure, anything tonight would match the best of the Uruguayan’s achievements with the Black Cats.
In fact, anything from the next three league games at City, Arsenal and Liverpool – if neither side reach the FA Cup quarter-finals – would represent a huge bonus.
In their current situation though, Sunderland have to strive to get those bonus points.
Verdict: Home win