SO near, and yet still so far to go.

It is advantage Sunderland after the first leg of the play-off semi-final, but after a tense and ultimately tetchy night on Wearside, nothing has been decided ahead of Thursday’s return date.

When Sunderland and Portsmouth meet for the fifth time this season at Fratton Park, it will finally be a case of winner takes all.

Sunderland will be defending a one-goal lead, and just about deserve to have their noses in front after shading Saturday’s opening leg.

They were marginally the better side when it was 11-against-11, albeit without really threatening Craig MacGillivray’s goal before Chris Maguire made his game-changing move from the bench, and produced a spirited response to keep Portsmouth out after Alim Ozturk was controversially dismissed midway through the second half.

They will need to display similar resolve on Thursday, with the Pompey response to Saturday’s result having been one of relative content. Quietly dissecting his side’s performance on the touchline after the final whistle, Kenny Jackett did not sound like someone who felt an unsurmountable obstacle had been placed in his way.

There has to be a good chance Sunderland will once again be without Aiden McGeady in three days’ time, with a painkilling injection having failed to facilitate the winger’s involvement at the weekend, and Ozturk will also be missing unless his dismissal is overturned at an appeal later today. Portsmouth, on the other hand, expect to have influential full-back Lee Brown and talismanic forward Brett Pitman back in their starting ranks, and will be roared on by a sold-out Fratton Park crowd.

It is going to be a challenge, but then the whole season has been something of a battle for the Black Cats, a team that has had to deal with the weight of expectation as well as the strength of the competition in League One. At least, after a pitiful end to the conventional campaign, Sunderland’s players have rediscovered their spark and brio. They will head south with a spring in their step, having finally proved that Portsmouth are not unbeatable opposition.

“We’ve played them a lot this season, and played well every time we’ve played them even though the results haven’t always gone our way,” said Lynden Gooch, who stepped up to the starting line-up as a last-minute replacement for the injured McGeady.

“Even down at their place with ten men, we played well up until the red card. We know we’re good enough, and we showed that again. It’s a good platform to go down there and hopefully kick on to get to the final.”

Portsmouth will have to come out swinging on Thursday, so the biggest plus from a Sunderland perspective at the weekend was the return of the kind of defensive discipline that has not always been apparent in the second half of the season.

Tom Flanagan dominated Pompey’s lone striker, Ollie Hawkins, and Ozturk was equally uncompromising and resolute before referee Andy Woolmer controversially brought his evening to an end. Whereas Jamal Lowe and Nathan Thompson had wreaked havoc down the right in Portsmouth’s previous matches with Sunderland, here they were rendered completely redundant thanks to Bryan Oviedo’s defensive efforts and the work rate of those playing in front of the full-back. Lee Cattermole, restored to midfield, provided his usual blend of mood-changing tackles and rabble-rousing fist pumps.

As a result, Portsmouth did not threaten at all prior to Ozturk’s dismissal, and while it took Sunderland until the final minute of the first half to record their first effort on target, with Gooch drilling in a long-range effort that was easily saved, Jack Ross deserves credit for the positive early change that altered the course of the game.

Maguire left the bench to replace the largely ineffectual Lewis Morgan in the 57th minute, and just five minutes later, he was dispatching the sensational first-time volley that resulted in the only goal. Matt Clarke’s weak defensive header looped towards him on the edge of the area, and having watched the ball arc towards his boot, Maguire smashed a magnificent first-time strike past MacGillivray.

The substitute’s energy transformed Sunderland’s attacking play – he also struck the base of the post after breaking from the halfway line with 11 minutes left - and his non-stop niggling clearly irked Christian Burgess. Another five or ten minutes and the Portsmouth centre-half might well have lost the plot entirely, something that will not have been lost on Sunderland’s players with Thursday’s tense second leg in mind.

Maguire has been feeling his way back to full fitness, and has not always been Ross’ first-choice selection this season even when he has been available. His force of personality sets him apart from his team-mates though, not to mention his constant desire to drive towards goal, and he surely has to start ahead of either Morgan or George Honeyman in three days’ time.

“I was disappointed not to start, but that’s the depth we’ve got,” said Maguire. “I knew I would take my chance if it came.

“It’s a battle of who wants it. We were due and owed them one. It’s halfway done, and a step in the right direction.”

It might have been even more had Sunderland been able to build on Maguire’s opener, but their task changed completely when Ozturk received a straight red card.

It was a desperately poor decision from Woolmer on two counts – first, Ozturk appeared to flick the ball before he brought the breaking Gareth Evans to ground, and second, the Portsmouth midfielder was clearly scampering away from goal as he tried to force his way into the box. A yellow card would have been harsh but palatable; a red was wholly unmerited.

Portsmouth almost inflicted further punishment, with Evans curling the subsequent free-kick against the crossbar via the slightest of flicks off Jimmy Dunne’s head, but while the visitors would have been hoping to mount a siege in the final 20 minutes, it never quite materialised. There is every chance that will change on Thursday.

“We’re going to have to be big and brave, but we’re also going to have show some composure, both in terms of how we play when we have the ball and how we handle the occasion,” said Ross. “It’s going to be a big test, but we’ve had plenty of those already and done okay. It’s exciting. We’re in there fighting for what we want to achieve.”