They have been mired in the bottom three since the defeat at Crystal Palace, the pro-penultimate game of Paolo Di Canio’s six-month aberration, but this morning the league table makes for rather more palatable viewing for his successor, Gus Poyet.
So much for Di Canio’s assertion, delivered in his latest acerbic rant towards his former charges, that little progress has been made since his acrimonious departure in October.
The heady heights of 17th, in addition to a Capital One Cup final in the offing is a decent return for Poyet’s first three months at the helm, although, almost regardless of the outcome against Manchester City at Wembley in March, the success or otherwise of the Uruguayan’s first stab at top flight management will ultimately be judged on his ability to keep at least three clubs below the Wearsiders at the season’s culmination.
Victory, the first in the league on home soil since early November, came courtesy of a fifth goal in four games for Adam Johnson, whose improved form has been mirrored by that of the team. It continued Stoke’s unenviable record of never having won at the Stadium of Light, and leaves them just a point above Sunderland, a meagre three above the relegation zone.
With tongues set wagging by the absence of Lee Cattermole, a Stoke target, from the Sunderland side, the visitors were culpable in their own downfall, or at least Asmir Begovic was.
The imposing goalkeeper, usually so reliable, could produce only a weak parry to Fabio Borini’s low 20-yard effort, allowing the prowling Johnson to follow up and score with ease after 17 minutes.
The fortunes of Begovic’s Sunderland counterpart Vito Mannone proved to be in stark contrast. The Italian denied Ryan Shawcross with a stunning first-half block to keep out the defender’s close range header, while he also produced a smart reaction save to divert Peter Crouch’s goal-bound effort.
Begovic atoned with a fine stop using his feet to block a close-range effort from Jozy Altidore shortly after the interval, but for Stoke, the damage had already been done, Steven N’Zonzi earning a second yellow card for inadvertently clipping the heels of the US international moments before. It was an innocuous challenge, but, as the last defender, he had to go.
At a numeric disadvantage for more than 35 minutes, the visitors deserve credit for ensuring their deficit remained just a single goal. Indeed, only a smart save from Mannone to thwart Peter Odemwingie, and further ill-fortune for Shawcross, who headed against the bar, prevented Mark Hughes’ side from snatching a share of the spoils.
SUNDERLAND (4-1-4-1): Mannone 8; Bardsley 6 (Celustka 46, 7), O’Shea 7, Brown 7, Alonso 7; Ki 6; Johnson 8 (Gardner 87, 6), Larsson 7, Colback 7, Borini 6; Altidore 6 (Fletcher 67, 5).
STOKE (4-1-4-1): Begovic 5; Cameron 6, Shawcross 6, Wilson 5, Pieters 6; Whelan 6; Odemwingie 6 (Guidetti 90, 5), N’Zonzi 4, Adam 7, Assaidi 5 (Arnautovic 72, 5); Crouch 5 (Walters 65, 6).
Referee: B Madley 6.