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Apr 19, 2014

Sunderland's glorious win keeps miracle alive

Twice at Stamford Bridge, and watching around the world, Chelsea supporters will have felt the warm glow of fortune shining on their Premier League title hopes.

The first: Ramires staying on the field unpunished for his astonishing assault on Seb Larsson in the first half. It was not the sort of challenge that someone called Lee Cattermole, say, booked later for a tug, would have expected to go unpunished.

And the second: Connor Wickham, after his third goal in two games, substituted in favour of Jozy Altidore.

And how wrong they would have been.

Sunderland 2, Chelsea 1.

This mighty performance by Sunderland not only ended Jose Mourinho's run of 77 games in charge of Chelsea without losing a home game. It also gave Gus Poyet's team reason to hope that miracles really do happen.

Four points in as many days from visits to the grounds of two of the three main title contenders appeared nowhere in the script. Most, and I include myself, expected only a couple of batterings to make Sunderland's goal difference an added problem to points deficiency.

Back to those two sources of Chelsea glee. I am now a lot more understanding of referee Mike Dean's failure to spot the Ramires elbow into Larsson's face than I might have been had the game ended differently. But Altidore's entry into this arena ultimately made sure it did not, and led to the removal of any unkind thoughts I might have harboured towards Dean.

Opinions will always vary. I thought Cesar Azpilicueta did foul Altidore and that it was, therefore, a penalty. Some pundits deemed it to be harsh. The histrionics in the Chelsea technical area, and Mourinho's sarcastic postmatch comments, can safely be disregarded as the petulant rantings of men who assume victory is theirs by right.

And at this stage of a desperate season, to be a Sunderland supporter, I should also be honest enough to say I do not actually care. Sunderland did, in my admittedly partisan view, deserve to win, just as they merited victory at the Etihad on Wednesday, two points conceded then only because Vito Mannone, so impressive all season that even my 5-year-old granddaughter has been know to sing his song, made an uncharacteristic error near the end. At Stamford Bridge on Saturday night, Mannone was back to his dependable best.

Chelsea will claim to have dominated possession. But then so have Sunderland in any number of games against teams they ought to have beaten but did not.

The fact is that Poyet's team looked dangerous on several occasions. Adam Johnson would have put Sunderland ahead before halftime had he not tried one more touch to get the ball on his preferred left foot before shooting.

And for all that Chelsea possession, the Sunderland defence performed admirably with blocks, closing down and tackles to belie the top-versus-bottom reality of the combat. Wes Brown and John O'Shea played as if still at the heart of a Sir Alex Ferguson back four. Marcos Alonso and Santiago Vergini covered superbly on the flanks and pressed forward when possible. In midfield, Jack Colback and Larsson again climbed mountains.

Massive praise must go to Wickham, sharp up front even before he followed up Alonso's shot, parried by Mark Schwarzer, to equalise Samuel Eto'o's 12th-minute volleyed goal. He held up the ball with aplomb and was a constant threat despite appearing to have taken an early knock.

When he was withdrawn, the score 1-1, my first thought was that Poyet wanted to avoid aggravating whatever injury that implied. Of the four games that remain, three are at home, and a competent striker is a must-have.

But Altidore did much more, on arrival, than make up the numbers. And I am delighted for him, and his many U.S. supporters who come this way from time to time, even if their interest in Sunderland begins and ends with his involvement, that he proved so crucial a substitution.

This victory, and the fighting draw at Manchester City when a win would not have flattered, should be regarded as the Sunderland performances many of us had been waiting all season to see. What happens next is anyone's guess. Home games against Cardiff, West Brom and Swansea should yield the points to keep them up, even if Old Trafford could prove one away game too many against teams at the top.

But Sunderland have been appalling all season at the Stadium of Light, with the exception of a handful of games. All the flair and resilience of successive away trips to title contenders will count for nothing unless it can, at last, be replicated against lesser opposition at home.

If it can, then the miracle is on.