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Apr 27, 2014

Sunderland's survival prospects soar

For those superstitious Sunderland fans who have their special rituals on matchdays, their efforts have not often worked as hoped this season.

But they did work on Sunday, supremely well it might be said, as the great escape act of Gus Poyet maintained its late but striking momentum in Sunderland's 4-0 win over Cardiff.

- Wickham: Win was deserved - Report: Sunderland 4-0 Cardiff

Results do not come much more emphatically, certainly not for Sunderland. This was precisely what was needed as the Premier League relegation battle reaches its jittery climax, and it was the kind of home performance Sunderland supporters have waited all season to witness.

There was the merest hint of controversy about the second goal, when referee Phil Dowd awarded a penalty and red card for what I saw as one of two potential penalties and red cards in the same incident. First Juan Cala, a man whose disciplinary record can be interpreted as a challenge to all Lee Cattermole's claims to bad-boy status, tugged at Connor Wickham as the revitalised striker pounced on his error to advance on goal.

Wickham, admirably, remained on his feet only to be barged off his stride by Cardiff goalkeeper David Marshall. I would accept that Cala’s protracted fouling may have begun on the edge of the box or even marginally outside, though that would not have spared him dismissal.

But Dowd could have given the penalty for Marshall’s challenge -- the keeper arguably by then had cover, so was not the last man -- having allowed play to go on. To the delight of most in the sellout crowd of nearly 46,000, Fabio Borini made taking penalties seem simple; his coolness from the spot will be one of the key reasons Sunderland stay up if Poyet's astonishing turnaround of fortunes at the club can be safely completed.

On any view, City were well beaten. They rarely looked menacing, even in the first half, and it was no surprise when Wickham, playing with immense confidence after bursting back in style from loan spells in the Championship, gave the home side the lead with a header from Seb Larsson’s corner in the 26th minute.

He scored again with his head for the fourth goal after Emanuele Giaccherini’s calm finish from an exquisite ball from Borini had ended the least doubt about Sunderland's ability to avoid the sort of late collapse that saw Fulham held 2-2 at home to Hull City on Saturday.

I had fought off all temptation to write a full mathematical analysis of the lift Saturday's results, with the exception of West Brom's victory over West Ham, gave Sunderland's own chances of survival.

After worrying all week whether the form that clawed four points at the Etihad and Stamford Bridge could be carried forward to a game in front of a nervous home crowd, Sunderland played more or less as you'd expect a team bursting with confidence, swatting away promoted upstarts in the process.

Wickham could not have chosen a better time to show Sunderland they were right to have invested 8 million pounds, a fee that could rise by half as much again, in his purchase in 2011. After two goals at Manchester City and another in the inspired Sunderland win at Chelsea, he is at last looking a dangerous attacker with bags to offer the Premier League -- and real hope now that he may continue offering it without having to leave Wearside. Until a few weeks ago, some supporters were still saying he looked out of his depth.

But there were also sterling displays from two of the men Poyet brought in on loan in January, Santiago Vergini and Marcos Alonso, both attacking full-backs. Alonso has shown his worth repeatedly; Vergini has had to overcome harsh criticism after making early blunders, notably when playing in central defence. Against Cardiff, both were outstanding.

But this was a solid team performance. Too often games have been lost or drawn because only Vito Mannone, in goal, played well or only Borini and Cattermole showed adequate commitment and resilience. There was not an obvious weak link in the side in this 4-0 win.

And now on to Old Trafford before two further homes games, against WBA and Swansea City. The trip to Manchester United could prove one away game against the elite too many, especially with Ryan Giggs already showing signs of motivational powers that David Moyes seemed to lack. But a draw is not impossible.

It increasingly looks like any three from Fulham, Cardiff and Norwich plus Sunderland for the drop. Six points from three remaining fixtures should not be beyond Poyet.