Sunderland remains in the relegation zone despite a 2-1 victory over Manchester United but there is light at the end of the tunnel. A first ever league win over the Red Devils at the Stadium of Light was only its sixth of the season but there is a combativeness and sense of purpose about Sunderland now that means yet another late escape is at least feasible.
Having taken an early lead through Wahbi Khazri, Sunderland was pegged back by Anthony Martial, but dominated the second half before finally claiming the victory thanks to Lamine Kone's 82nd-minute winner (although it is possible it will eventually go down as an own-goal against the United keeper David De Gea). That it was two of Sunderland's new signings getting the goals will not go unnoticed; all three of Sam Allardyce's new signings who lasted the 90 minutes had fine games.
It's not just the dropped points that will trouble United. This was another thoroughly lackluster performance, which will be all the more disappointing coming after a couple of weeks in which its form had seemed to be picking up. The second half in particular was desperately insipid. With the top four playing each other on Sunday, this was an opportunity to close the gap; as it is United is six points behind Manchester City in fourth.
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There was a sense in which these were bonus points: Sunderland's fate is not going to be determined by games against the likes of United, Liverpool and Manchester City. It's the next run of games, against the likes of West Ham United, Crystal Palace and Southampton that will decide whether it stays up or not. Realistically it probably needs another five wins to be safe and after the last couple of weeks -- Sunderland played well in defeat to City and fought back from 2-0 down for a point against Liverpool last Saturday -- that suddenly seems like a far more realistic proposition.
It could hardly have got off to a better start on a bitterly cold afternoon punctuated by vicious hail showers. Two minutes in, Patrick van Aanholt was blocked by Matteo Darmian. Jermain Defoe jumped over Khazri's low skidding free-kick and the ball bobbled through and in off the far post. For Khazri, his home debut could hardly have started better; it was a scruffy goal but Sunderland is hardly in a position to care.
Khazri, brought in at the end of the transfer window from Bordeaux, was a persistent threat down the left, linking up well with the ever-adventurous Van Aanholt, and with a little more composure or quality in its shooting, Sunderland might have increased its lead. For the most part, though, the first half was a patchy, untidy affair, full of commitment and poor touches, the flow not helped by injuries that forced off Jan Kirchhoff with what appeared to be a hamstring problem and Darmian, who handed awkwardly on his shoulder after running in to Khazri.
United, predictably, bossed possession -- 69% at half-time -- and, as has been the story for much of the season, struggled to turn it into clear-cut chances. This is a Sunderland defense that has kept only three clean sheets all season, though, and eventually the attrition on constant vague pressure told. A stretching Lamine Kone diverted Martial's low cross out to the edge of the box where Juan Mata hit a curling first-time shot. Vito Mannone got across to his right to save but the ball fell to Martial who, from an extremely tight angle, dinked it over the prone keeper to equalize, the 50th goal Sunderland has conceded this season.
Sunderland started the second half far better than it had finished the first and could legitimately feel fortune was not on its side. First a near-post header from John O'Shea was deflected wide off Rooney's hand. It was at extremely close range and may have struck his head anyway, but the hand was raised. Then Daley Blind, under pressure from Defoe, nearly turned a Van Aanholt cross into his own net but the ball dribbled wide with David De Gea beaten.
It had been Lee Cattermole's pass that had released Van Aanholt and the midfielder, not exactly noted for the creative side of his game then played in Dame N'Doye, another January signing, only for De Gea to make a fine save with his right foot. Kone then turned inside Cameron Borthwick-Jackson only for De Gea to tip his effort over.
There was perhaps a sense that Sunderland had missed its opportunity, that the chances could not keep coming. But with eight minutes remaining, Fabio Borini got behind Borthwick-Jackson to win a corner. That was cleared for another corner. And this time, Kone arrived unmarked in the corner of the box to power a header goalwards. De Gea and Martial rather got in each others' way, but the ball found its way in. For Sunderland, a lifeline; for United, yet another blow to its hopes of qualifying for next season's Champions League.