Sunderland a whisker from relegation safety
It is not quite over. But with an exceptional win at Old Trafford to cap a trememdous late dash for safety, Sunderland stand on the brink of completing perhaps the noblest escape act in the history of the Premier League.
Bottom at Christmas, Sunderland looked a lost cause. The rigours of then reaching a Wembley final and glaring deficiencies in every area of the team made relegation seem a racing certainty. Often enough, they could not score at home, let alone win. But the manner of the revival brings pride to the hearts of Sunderland's massive, loyal support and immense credit to the Uruguayan head coach, Gus Poyet.
Even a month ago, the challenge facing Poyet and his team appeared less daunting than impossible. Thrashed 5-1 at Tottenham, Sunderland's run-in with Manchester City, Chelsea and Man Utd had fans preparing for an inevitable return to the Championship.
- Delaney: Reality check at Old Trafford - Relegation: Sunderland win seals Cardiff's, Fulham's fate
Yet Poyet's collection of players -- several borrowed or almost out of contract, all underachieving -- suddenly began to produce to sort of form many fans will remember for the rest of their lives. The job is not complete: if Norwich lose at Chelsea on Sunday, it will be. If not, Poyet must match whatever result the Canaries achieve at Stamford Bridge in one of the two remaining home games -- West Brom on Wednesday, Swansea on the final day of the season -- to be sure of avoiding the drop.
And let no one, Man Utd fan or otherwise, try to persuade you the victory at Old Trafford was anything but fully deserved. Wes Brown and John O'Shea returned to the scene of past glories to present the steadiest of central defence displays to defy their old team. Lee Cattermole showed all the tenacity, and none of the lack of discipline, associated with his game. With Jack Colback and Seb Larsson, among those probably leaving in the summer, he ably countered United in midfield. While Adam Johnson was disappointing -- unfortunately for him in front of the watching England manager Roy Hodgson -- until replaced, Fabio Borini and Connor Wickham were hard-working and productive in forward positions.
Marcos Alonso and Santiago Vergini did all that might be expected of full backs seeking to diminish United's threat from the wings and the upshot was that Vito Mannone had no more than a tame shot to save as occasional chances flashed well wide or high over the bar. This was perhaps just as well as Mannone, newly voted Sunderland's player of the season, did not have his most commanding of games, twice flapping at menacing balls he ought to have caught.
Wickham, the Premier's April player of the month, could not score yet again after his run of five in three games but did make the winner, his cross from the corner flag falling perfectly for Larsson to sweep home. Sunderland's only attempt on goal, I heard someone say in the first half.
Maybe, but hitting the woodwork twice in the second half -- in one case after a move involving what seemed to have been dozens of passes -- hardly supports the notion of a lucky away side parking the bus and offering limited ambition. In truth, a second goal would not have flattered Sunderland in the second half.
Of course, United had overwhelming possession -- 71-29 percent up to the 60th minute -- but this is little more than should naturally be the case in a game pitting one of Europe's top teams, albeit fallen on comparatively hard times, against fourth-bottom. So little was created with that command of the ball that my biggest concern, before his substitution, was that the combination of Ashley Young and referee Howard Webb on the field would lead to a dive and a penalty.
After the thrashing at Spurs, Poyet admitted he needed a miracle to keep Sunderland up. A good case can be made for suggesting he needed a miracle even when he took over after the disastrous start to the season under Paolo Di Canio. I can hardly deny having been in the "we're doomed' camp for much of the season, perking up a little once or twice but largely resigned to relegation.
The recovery has been superb. And the supporters who outsang and outclassed United's quietened masses on Saturday have, all season, merited nothing less.
Poyet knew after the game that he had played his part in one of those games players, supporters and supporters live for. An outstanding achievement is now tantalisingly within their grasp.