IT might have ended in the heartbreak of an 89th-minute concession, but Gustavo Poyet is hoping last night's 2-2 draw at Manchester City inspires a rousing revival that could yet carry Sunderland to safety.
The Black Cats looked to be heading for a crucial, if unexpected, victory when Connor Wickham's second-half double cancelled out Fernandinho's early opener.
However, a dramatic late error from goalkeeper Vito Mannone allowed Samir Nasri's weak shot to roll into the net, and left Sunderland six points adrift of safety with five games remaining.
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Things are unlikely to get any easier when they head to Chelsea on Saturday, but Poyet is hoping the confidence gleaned from a spirited showing at the Etihad Stadium propels his players to an unlikely escape.
“We need to believe that it is possible if we play like we did today,” said the Sunderland boss. “Getting the ball and passing it, going forward and delivering proper balls into the box and attacking the ball to try to make something happen. That is what we have to take forward.
“It's going to give us a little bit of confidence, and it should allow us to go into the game on Saturday with a different approach. I was in a taxi today and the driver said, 'The next two games are Manchester City and Chelsea away? Oof'. But we got a point, and now I'm sure all the players are believing they can get at least that if they play the same way at Chelsea “I think everyone was expecting us to collapse and concede five or six, but we didn't. We won't stop or give up because the players know how important it is for the fans and club to keep going until the end.”
Nevertheless, having been so close to what would have been a crucial victory, Sunderland's players were understandably crestfallen when Mannone's mistake enabled Nasri to find the net.
In a season that has been littered with self-inflicted wounds – own goals, dismissals, a messy change of manager – last night's turning point felt like the most damaging of the lot.
The irony was that it was Mannone at fault, as the Italian has been Sunderland's most influential player for the majority of the campaign, and was the hero at Old Trafford as a penalty shoot-out win over Manchester United set up the highlight of a trip to Wembley.
The goalkeeper was distraught in the dressing room after the game, but Poyet is confident he boasts the mental strength required to recover his composure ahead of the trip to Stamford Bridge.
“That is the hardest part of today because he has been outstanding,” he said. “He feels terrible, and it is about controlling emotions now. But this doesn't mean that he has changed my mind about anything. He needs to recover quickly because we need him for Saturday.”
While Mannone produced an unexpected error, Wickham's brace was equally surprising given that the 21-year-old had only previously scored four goals in his three-year Sunderland career.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to wonder what might have happened had the striker been given an extended run in the first half of the season rather than Jozy Altidore or Steven Fletcher. As it is, Poyet is simply hoping he proves equally effective in the remaining five games.
“When I got to the club there were five or six strikers, and I had to make a decision because it was impossible to play them all,” he said. “He is still young and he needs to play, so we gave him the chance to do that.
“He played well and we brought him back, then he went on loan again. Then we had a few issues at the top of the pitch, and I made the decision to bring him back and play him. Apart from one game at Spurs, he has played in them all.
“If he delivers, he is going to be playing. In our situation, if you deliver something important, you put yourself in the team. I will find the shape because you deserve to play.”
It wasn't just Sunderland reeling from their failure to take all three points, as the result has also dealt what looks like being a fatal blow to Manchester City's title hopes.
Manuel Pellegrini's side are six points behind Liverpool and four points adrift of Chelsea, and while they have a game in hand on both of their rivals, they will need both to slip up to have any chance of claiming a second Premier League crown. A draw when Chelsea travel to Liverpool a week on Sunday could well be their only hope.
“The chances are less than before the match,” admitted Pellegrini. “We needed to take all three points but we couldn't. However, we will continue fighting to the end.”