THERE may well have been “a blip” at Portsmouth seven days earlier, but Sunderland’s promotion challenge is well and truly back on track – and at this rate the top two have every reason to be concerned.

Perhaps there were a few fears among fans as to what was around the corner after the Black Cats’ nine-match unbeaten run came to an end at Fratton Park, but Saturday’s spirited and much-improved second half display against Ipswich Town erased all of those.

Sunderland have now shown they know how to react and under Phil Parkinson they have developed a defined style, a system that the players are now more familiar playing in and, crucially, a knack for winning games.

It is hard to believe that Sunderland went almost two months without a win before beating Doncaster on December 29, and now they have lost just one of their last 11 games and won six of those, to act as a warning to the teams above them that Parkinson’s men are on the march.

This might have taken a brilliant strike from Chris Maguire, after a brief change of shape and the introduction of Kyle Lafferty, with nine minutes remaining to defeat at Ipswich, but this was also a victory against an opponent who are quite rightly regarded as one of the best in the division despite slipping out of the top six.

“You take points off your rivals, we knew it was difficult,” said Parkinson. “I am so pleased the way we got stronger as the game went on. We were excellent second half.

“Last week did it knock confidence? No. But we looked at why we didn’t get the victory, analysed it, without making too big a thing about it. And we moved on quickly. I felt we did that. We weren’t at our best against Portsmouth, circumstances contributed to that.

“We are on a good run, we had a blip last week, but I have been pleased with the lads and how they reacted, no excuses. We know where we were before in terms of physical output and we had to get back to that and we did that against Ipswich.”

Ipswich have dropped out of the play-off places on goal difference, level on points with Sunderland, having lost the last three matches. Paul Lambert’s side showed in enough in the first half to highlight why they were the team that shone in early stages of the season and led the division.

The Tractor Boys passed the ball around nicely and created a number of decent openings, but Sunderland’s defensive line stood strong more often than not to thwart their advances. Will Keane and James Norwood had efforts blocked regularly.

That was despite the fact Sunderland had to change the backline, with Joel Lynch missing with concussion. Tom Flanagan slotted back in as though he had never been away, and January recruit Bailey Wright delivered his best display as part of a three since moving on loan from Bristol City.

“If we play like that we will win more than we lose in the remaining 16 games of the season,” said Lambert. “We had so much control in the first half but you have to score, take your chances.

“You have to give Sunderland credit, there are two teams there, and they are a good side, with a great fanbase, great noise, and you expect them to have a go at you at some point. Football wise we rode our luck second half and they got their goal.”

Wright had already made a telling contribution at the back, particularly a notable block on a Keane effort as Sunderland looked like they could concede in that opening 45 minutes, when he hammered an effort against the crossbar after the restart.

He had worked his way into a decent position in the penalty area to turn a cross from Denver Hume goalwards when the woodwork got in the way, just as Lynden Gooch had found when he brilliantly wriggled his way through a number of Town players before hitting the foot of the far post. Charlie Wyke wasted the rebound.

Just when it seemed time was running out for Sunderland to get the breakthrough much of Sunderland’s second half display deserved, Parkinson gambled on a late change of approach. He asked Lafferty to form a two-pronged attack with Wyke for the final 11 minutes.

Two minutes later Wyke’s little pass along the edge of the penalty area got a touch off Lafferty and ran kindly for Maguire to hammer into Tomas Holy’s bottom right corner with precision and power to secure a crucial three points for Sunderland as the top two threatened to widen the gap.

“It was a difficult call because I felt the shape of the team was working well, we were causing them a lot of problems and we looked the team that was going to win it,” said Parkinson.

“But I felt with 11 minutes to go, Laff’s physicality with Wyke would give them something else to think about. Sometimes those decisions work for you and sometimes they don’t.

“Kyle was a little lucky not to start, Charlie had a shoulder issue but he was desperate to play. That’s the kind of character we need. Laff was in the team shape on Friday, he showed the right attitude to give us a lift. Against a tired team, to throw someone with Laff’s physicality at the top end of the pitch is great weapon to have from the bench.”

Despite Ipswich claims for a penalty when goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin left substitute Emyr Huws floored in the area when he came to punch the ball late on, Sunderland survived some light, late pressure.

It was the third 1-0 win from Sunderland in the last five matches, during which they have kept four clean sheets, and the resilience of the side and an ability to shut out teams is giving Parkinson’s men the platform to build from.

And with Gooch and Maguire providing the creative sparks in thefinal third, Sunderland are proving to be genuine promotion contenders – just like it was always felt they should have been last summer after losing out at Wembley in the play-off final.

Midfielder George Dobson, contributing with his passing ability and desire to win the ball, said: “The amount of crosses we got in the box, the amount of chances we created, on another day you score two, three or four goals.

“We’ve just got to keep doing the same things. We got another clean sheet as well and if you keep keeping clean sheets you’re going to win games because you only need one do it.

“And then you have Chris who has been putting a lot of extra work in - in the gym and on the training pitch - and if he can keep scoring goals for us then brilliant. I’m buzzing for him, buzzing for everyone. It felt like a real team performance in the second half. You can’t enjoy it too much though because of the game on Tuesday night against Rochdale. It’s a quick turnaround.”