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 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 beating Manchester City the week before 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 penalty shoot-out win over Manchester United.
All around them in the Premier League are shooting stars falling to earth – Cardiff City now rock-bottom, West Ham and Fulham unable to escape the gravitational pull of the relegation zone.
And struggling to avoid being pulled into the black hole are Norwich, Hull, West Brom and, last night, Stoke.
The Potters arrived at the Stadium of Light having won fewer games away from home than any other side in the division, but that was not that disastrous a statistic, given Sunderland had won fewer games at home than any other side in the division.
Something had to give and it looked as though it would be the visiting side as Sunderland started well and dominated the opening spell.
Gus Poyet opted for a 4-3-3 formation with Adam Johnson, Jozy Altidore, and Fabio Borini spearheading their attack.
Steven Fletcher and Lee Cattermole – (falsely?) rumoured to be transfer targets of Stoke – did not make the starting lining up but both had been struggling with injuries, Fletcher on the bench and Cattermole not fit enough to be involved.
Regardless of their absences 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 minute, parried by Asmir Begovic, to show for their troubles.
Stoke were a subdued, if resilient, unit, and did not make their first foray upfield until the eighth minute when Oussama Assaidi made ground up the left, but Vito Mannone made light of the cross deflected goalwards off Ki Sung-Yueng.
Charlie Adam, who had been at the heart of Brown’s wrongful sending off at the Britannia, was lucky to avoid a booking himself in the 13th minute when he steamed into Larsson.
Sunderland could make no progress from the free-kick or from efforts from Larsson and an eye-catching, if inaccurate, couple of efforts from Bardsley.
As the quarter-hour passed, it looked as though it was going to be one of those nights against the Premier League’s lesser sides where Sunderland dominated but were unable to make it count. That changed, though, in the 17th minute though when Sunderland took the lead thanks to 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, on the right of goal, nipped in, pinched the ball away from the keeper and slotted home from a narrow angle at close range
Sunderland remained on top in the minutes that followed, though the dangerous Adam lashed a great shot goalwards from 30 yards, in the 22nd minute, which drifted narrowly wide of the target.
They went closer on the half-hour when Mannone took down Geoff Cameron’s cross from the right, but O’Shea knocked it out of his hands and Crouch, on the left of goal, brought a super reaction save out of the keeper.
Sunderland were in danger of losing their way defensively in the minutes that followed.
Bardsley almost handled and sliced the ball out for a corner, furious that neither O’Shea nor Brown had headed away the right-wing cross before it reached him. From the left-wing corner, Cameron headed over at the far post. And the problems continued for Sunderland with only the remarkable Mannone standing between his side and an equaliser.
In the 39th minute, 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 and Brown to thunder in and hook clear.
Stoke remained on top in a scrappy end to the first half and although Sunderland saw it through safely to half-time, the conclusion that the home side had allowed the visitors back into the game was inescapable.
Sunderland made a change at the start of the second half – Ondrej Celustka on for the injured Bardsley – but the Wearsiders continued to labour.
Stoke threatened to start the second half in the same way they finished the first – Cameron’s cross from the left in the 47th minute eluding Mannone and Alonso stumbling the loose ball into touch.
Sunderland had a good chance to punish the visitors in the 49th minute when Borini was fouled on the left of Stoke’s 18-yard box, but a training ground free-kick involving Larsson and Johnson did not come off.
Jozy Altidore had been at the heart of all that was good about Sunderland’s first-half performance – the big American’s form so different from the many meek displays witnessed this season.
And his powerhouse performance continued in the second half with Marc Wilson joining Steven N’Zonzi 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 N’Zonzi 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 undoubtedly pulled back at the striker.
It was N’Zonzi’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 thoughts flashed back to Poyet’s pre-match call for a “special game” for the home fans.
For a few minutes, it looked as though it would be. Larsson’s shot from the resulting free-kick struck the wall, but Sunderland followed that up with a push for goal which saw Altidore squeezed through on goal, but Begovic made a good save from the American and Larsson saw his follow-up blocked.
Then, just before the hour, Johnson took possession on the right after a good run from Borini, but the winger was caught in two minds and his ball across the face of goal was neither shot nor cross.
The hour approached with Sunderland on top but needing a second goal to settle nerves.
Larsson looked to force the issue in the 68th minute with a good run and shot from 25 yards which Begovic palmed around his post, but, with 20 minutes remaining, Sunderland were the nervier side.
They might have paid the price in the 74th minute when Stoke’s new signing, Peter Odemwingie, received the ball on the right of the box, nutmegged Brown and drove in a low shot which Mannone did well to save.
A Colback foul on Cameron in the 76th minute gave Stoke 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.
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 ball 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 from the right 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.
Four minutes were added on at the end, four minutes for Sunderland fans to bite their fingernails. but after those four minutes, Sunderland were fourth bottom.
It is the first time they have been out of the relegation zone since August. And the odds must be falling on them staying outside of it by the end of the season.
Meanwhile, Stoke, who have not won a game since before Christmas, continue on their downward trajectory.
This is all great stuff for Sunderland, who, in their last three games have reached the Capital One Cup final, the last 16 of the FA Cup and, last night, finally escaped the bottom three.
The best 10 days Sunderland fans have experienced in many a long year will now come to pass if Sunderland can do the derby double over Newcastle United at St James’s Park on Saturday.
Incredibly, should they do so, they would be knocking on the door of mid-table.