Sunderland show survival spirit
The final throe of the Premier League season is oft when heroes are forged and villains cast. Decisions made replay through a player's mind as the season is dissected meticulously and key moments come to the fore.
In the 33rd minute it appeared that Craig Gardner had decided to take the latter role. A wild reckless lunge on Charlie Adam had seen his season ended and Sunderland's potential ascent to victory chronically steepen. Already a goal down following the expected avenue of a set piece, their response typified the effect Paolo Di Canio has had on Wearside.
Able to mathematically secure their Premier League status, Stoke were placed in the driving seat, yet surprisingly it seemed as if they were the side missing a player. For the small pocket of travelling fans, a feeling of bemusement as to why their side did so little to extend the lead. Not just a lack of creativity, their overall performance lacked vim. The pace of Cameron Jerome provided an obvious out ball over the top, yet routinely Stoke struggled to do what seemed so simple.
Simplicity is something Tony Pulis has often been accused of. Despite spending over £100 million in the Premier League, there is little noticeable evolution in their play. Ryan Shotton is the new Rory Delap, as direct play takes centre stage with no tactical understudy.
For the dissenters amongst the ranks, Pulis was keen to remind them of last season's Europa League run and a trip to Wembley. Roundly criticised following recent claims that just remaining a Premier League side was achievement enough for Stoke, his players were operating with a complacency that seemed to echo his views.
Contrasting Stoke's lethargy was a buoyant Sunderland side. Under Paolo Di Canio excuses have become outlawed as the pity parties of Martin O'Neill's tenure are replaced by a desire and commitment to providing the maximum amount of effort as a bare minimum.
The Italian had so often referenced how Sunderland were playing cup finals, with Sunday's game against Southampton likened to the upcoming clash between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich at Wembley later this month.
Parading the famous 1973 FA Cup winning team prior to kick off, there was just a tinge of cup atmosphere in the air. Bred by the expectancy the Italian has instilled in the club, for success to be achieved, belief needed to be supplemented by a good performance.
That message seemed to filter through to all bar Gardner. As the minutes applause in memory of 1973's hero Ian Porterfield faded, Gardner drastically changed the tone to one of shock and incredulity. For all the home fans may claim they were lamenting the referee, their real frustrations were aimed squarely at Gardner, who will now miss the rest of the season.
Describing his side as like 'masochists' towards their chances of survival, Gardner's moment of carelessness means Di Canio must once again shuffle his squad.
If the midfielder was the villain of the piece, defender John O'Shea may well prove to be the protagonist in Sunderland's survival story. 'Vital' is the word synonymous with points picked up at the season's crescendo, and never has it seemed more apt.
A Seb Larsson cross was tapped home by an onrushing O'Shea amid a roar and a reminder from the defender for all around him to keep their heads. In a matter of seconds the dying embers of hope had been reignited amongst the home support. Di Canio was doing his best to prod the atmosphere further, as both managers looked to commend the contribution of the terraces after the game.
Never one to hold private counsel on the touchline, the Italian was mirroring the feelings of his fans in venting his frustration at Lee Mason. Routinely departing the confines of his technical area, he was left looking exacerbated at Mason's reluctance to credit either Stephen N'Zonzi or Dean Whitehead with a second booking.
With Jerome and Crouch expected to feed on morsel like opportunities, Sunderland's tale of redemption seemed complete when Danny Rose fired off a shot that kissed the post. A unanimous favourite since arriving from Tottenham Hotspur on loan, Di Canio will also be forced to live without his presence on the final day of the season - a consequence of the Premier League's loan rules.
As the fans applauded the players from the field, the gesture was returned by Di Canio and his staff. Sunderland has never been as harmonious as it is under the Italian. In his post match press conference, all were praised - even Gardner.
While a cynic may consider his smothering of positivity disingenuous, few can contest the results his approach has achieved. Sunderland simply don't know when they're beaten, whereas Stoke seem indifferent.
As is the nature of the latter part of the season, attentions quickly turned to Tuesday night and Wigan versus Swansea. Di Canio claimed he won't be watching, before a wry smile crept across his face and he confirmed his alter ego as that of Pinocchio.
While his jokes may provide light relief, one thing remains clear, if Di Canio can guide Sunderland away from the precipice, he will have written a fairytale to rival the one of 1973.
Man of the match: Adam Johnson. John O'Shea may have scored the goal, but in Johnson the club have arguably their last true creative outlet. Coming to life in the wake of Gardner's dismissal, his dangerous dribbling was matched by a work ethic that has not always been present this season. One goal from matching his best ever Premier League tally, he would go a significant distance in justifying his £10 million fee with a late season strike.
STOKE VERDICT: Pulis has done little to quell any critics who think his time at the Britannia Stadium should be coming to an end. His inability to kill off a Sunderland side forced to plug holes in both central midfielder and right fullback shows a lack of tactical complexity. Far from guaranteed survival, the sluggishness was embodied by Charlie Adam who was substituted midway through the second half. The ultimate issue remained a lack of movement in midfield - a consequence of selecting such defensively minded players.
SUNDERLAND VERDICT: Steeped in passion, arguably Sunderland's best player was one they do not currently own. As conjecture on Rose's future mounts up, it is vital Sunderland attempt to secure his signature as soon as possible. Further stretched with the dismissal of Gardner, if the Black Cats are able to survive the cull of relegation, the summer must be spent adding to the squad and giving them the required depth.