Three weeks ago tonight, Gustavo Poyet was talking about Sunderland needing “miracles” to stay in the Premier League. Now, survival looks not just a possibility but a probability.
Mathematically speaking, the Black Cats need seven points from their last three matches to confirm their place in next season’s top flight.
Yet having blown goal difference out of the equation and climbed out of the relegation zone for the first time since mid-February, they actually need as many points from three games as Norwich City collect against Chelsea and Arsenal. That is unlikely to be six.
More importantly, Sunderland go into the run-in with not so much a monkey as a 20st gorilla off their backs. Winning at Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea was almost miraculous, but beating Cardiff City was more significant. Hammering them so decisively could knock the Welsh club out of the equation.
Ever since Poyet got to grips with this squad they have had two major failings – the lack of a potent centre-forward capable of turning possession into goals and an inability to defeat their bottom-half rivals, especially at home. Both were gloriously cast aside yesterday.
The Black Cats’ first home win this season over bottom-half opponents came courtesy of Connor Wickham’s fourth and fifth goals in three matches.
That Sunderland host West Bromwich Albion and Swansea City in the final week of the season makes it especially significant. The other game is at Old Trafford on Saturday.
To take three points off Ryan Giggs’ Manchester United would be improbable, but arguably less miraculous than drawing at Manchester City and not in the same league as winning at Chelsea.
The Stadium of Light was officially a sell-out yesterday and although, with the television cameras in tow and with a small travelling contingent that did not mean completely full, it was certainly at top volume.
The noise which greeted Sunderland’s players as they returned to the dressing room after the warm-up showed whatever else they might lack it would not be support.
Too often this season the pressure of expectation on Wearside has crushed them, but not on thisoccasion.
Now they know chances will be converted, Sunderland are daring to dream again.
Sebastian Larsson, in perhaps his best performance of the season, threw himself at an early Connor Wickham cross but his header was comfortable for David Marshall.
A long ball from the Swede was just beyond Fabio Borini’s stretch.
“Don’t worry about a thing,” sang the home fans.
With Wickham in their ranks, such optimism is no longer misplaced.
He evaded Kevin Theophile-Catherine at Larsson’s 27th-minute corner and headed the ball from beyond the back post just inside the near. The stands erupted.
Courtesy of Cattermole’s earlier foul on Jordan Mutch, the game began to get niggly.
Mutch, Santiago Vergini and Gary Medel were booked within a matter of minutes. Before it could get nervy too came the crucial moment.
Sunderland were heading into the interval with a deserved lead but one narrow enough to severely test nerves which have too often not been up to it this season when Wickham pounced on an error by Juan Cala.
The Spaniard instinctively tried to rectify it by grabbing the striker’s shirt.
Hungry for more goals, the big striker shrugged him off and tried to take the ball wide of David Marshall.
When the goalkeeper forced him out to the byline, referee Phil Dowd gave him his reward by pointing to the spot. Although Cala’s initial attempts to tug Wickham back started outside the area, they continued into it.
As well as awarding a penalty, Dowd showed a red card. Cardiff manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could only turn his back on the play with a rueful smile.
Borini did not place the pressure penalty perfectly, but all the Stadium of Light cared about was that it was out of Marshall’s reach. A 2-0 lead against 10 men was made for teams like Sunderland, whose fondness for passing their opponents to death can overstretch any undermanned team.
Peter Whittingham’s 65th-minute free-kick, well saved by Vito Mannone, looked like a reminder there was still work to be done.
In fact, it would be Cardiff’s only shot on target. Steven Caulker missed the target from the rebound as he put his head among the flying boots.
Crucially, Sunderland had not retreated into their shell in the second half, as can sometimes be the case when the realisation dawns if they are not careful they might pull off an important victory.
Larsson slid into a terrific last-ditch tackle on Mats Daehli and Borini curled a shot just wide.
Adam Johnson’s cross was just too far in front of Wickham and Borini. Surprised when a corner came to him, Wes Brown nodded it over.
Theophile-Catherine slide in to concede a corner when Borini burst on to the loose ball after Wickham failed to make the most of an exquisite first touch, and Jack Colback’s fizzing low cross bounced off the Italian and into Marshall’s body.
What has brought this transformation is anyone’s guess – perhaps Poyet’s talk of miracles has left his players with nothing to lose – but there is a confidence about Sunderland at the moment which could have made such a difference had it come earlier in the season.
Eventually their determination to keep pushing for victory paid off. With a man at his back, Johnson did well to touch the ball off, and Borini fed Emanuele Giaccherini, introduced five minutes earlier, to score the best goal of the game.
Pleasingly, the hosts continued to go for the throat. Oh to have seen them play without the mental shackles on them during the winter.
Giaccherini saw a drive blocked and the impressive Colback’s 25-yard effort was only narrowly off target.
With four minutes to go, Wickham stooped to head in a Giaccherini corner.