Full-time: Sunderland 1 Stoke City 0
SUNDERLAND climbed out of the Premier League drop zone with a 1-0 victory against Stoke City but, in a season where it has become their trademark, they made work incredibly hard for themselves.
In a season punctuated by own goals, gaffes, dismissals, assuaged by a cup run which will culminate in a Capital One Cup final in March, it is fair to say that 2013-14 has not been without incident.
Cut adrift at the bottom of the Premier League, Gus Poyet has brought about some turnaround on Wearside which resulted in their ascension to a position of relative safety on Wednesday after spending all of the season in the drop zone.
After Adam Johnson's first-half goal, then Steven N'Zonzi's second-half sending off for Stoke, the stars were aligned, the path was clear, yet the Potters, resolute and determined, fought hard and could have nabbed an equaliser late on.
After resting most of his players for the FA Cup victory against Kidderminster Harriers on Saturday, Poyet reverted to the line-up that served him so well in the Capital One Cup semi-final second leg at Old Trafford a week ago, with one notable absence.
Lee Cattermole, the subject of interest from last night's opponents, missed the game with what Sunderland described as a 'knock' before kick-off, with Jack Colback slotting into the deep-lying midfield role that Poyet prefers to employ.
There seemed little evidence of the Black Cats missing their once-captain, with Colback effectively manning the engine room against a determined Stoke outfit.
Poyet's team, buoyed rather than wearied from their cup exploits, took 17 minutes to get back into the Premier League groove when Johnson tapped home his eighth goal of the season, and his sixth in six games, all coming since the turn of the year.
To call it a tap-in is slightly unfair, as Johnson – who the FA intriguingly referred to as an 'England international' in a mid-game Tweet – had much to do after Asmir Begovic had parried Fabio Borini's low shot into his path. Johnson took a touch and slotted into the back of the net.
Before then, Seb Larsson had warmed Begovic's palms early doors with a stinging shot after Borini made a clever cross-field run with seven minutes on the clock, while at the other end, Oussama Assaidi's cross took a deflection of Sung-Yeung Ki's head which Vito Mannone had to do well to catch.
Phil Bardsley went close with two acrobatic volleys before Johnson broke the deadlock, while Stoke had a couple of opportunities to draw level – only to be denied by more Mannone heroics.
In his first action since that night at Old Trafford, Mannone denied Peter Crouch on the half-hour after John O'Shea had got in the goalkeeper's way from Geoff Cameron's cross, while the Italian made a spectacular save from Ryan Shawcross, palming the defender's diving header away from Charlie Adam's cross.
Adam was cast in the role of villain having played a role in two sendings-off in previous encounters - for Wes Brown in December at the Britannia Stadium and for Craig Gardner's dismissal late last season at the Stadium of Light – and got himself into the book on 34 minutes having adjudged to be making too much of contact from a Ki challenge.
Stoke had a decent opportunity on the stroke of half-time when Erik Pieters centred for Crouch, but the former England international sliced his shot wide.
Bardsley's involvement in this fixture was brought to an end at half-time with the introduction of Ondrej Celustka, after the full-back had taken a knock in the opening half.
Altidore had been preferred by Poyet to lead Sunderland's attack, and the American showed why the Black Cats were willing to invest £6m in the striker with a commanding display.
Mark Wilson was booked for a foul on the forward, moments before the Potters were reduced to ten men when N'Zonzi scythed Altidore down on the edge of the area. It was the midfielder's second booking of the evening but arguably could have been a straight red.
Sunderland looked to capitalise on their numerical advantage, and Altidore's 56th minute shot was saved well by Begovic before Johnson curled wide two minutes later.
But although the Black Cats worked hard to keep Stoke at bay, they were made to wait until the 70th minute to register their next meaningful opportunity, when Larsson drove through the middle and unleashed a low shot which Begovic did well to tip around the post.
At the other end, Peter Odemwingie, on his debut for Stoke after making a move from Cardiff City, almost levelled for his new side when he nutmegged John O'Shea, but Mannone was on hand to save well from the Nigerian striker, while Adam brought a decent save out of Mannone on 78 minutes, volleying a rebound goalwards after his initial free-kick struck the wall.
Stoke piled the pressure on Sunderland in the final ten minutes, with Shawcross hitting the bar with a fine header that completely bamboozled Mannone, before Borini got in behind the defence to bring a decent block from Begovic as Sunderland counter-attacked - Wes Brown flashed a header wide from the resulting corner.
Stoke caused trouble for Sunderland with a stoppage time cross into the area that Mannone spilled before regaining, while Colback brought a good save out of Begovic which proved to be the last action of the game.