Fiery Di Canio has injected some life into Sunderland



There's very little that can be said about the 148th Tyne and Wear derby that isn't neatly summed up by the grass stains Paolo Di Canio will have to spend tomorrow scrubbing out of the knees of his suit trousers.

The match was about as evenly contested as a Korean election. Sunderland didn't just roll Newcastle United over; by the time David Vaughan's powerful shot had whizzed past the bemused head of Rob Elliot to put them 3-0 up, they had tickled their bellies, read them a story, and tucked them up in bed as well. But there was only one set of fans who thought they were dreaming.

It was as bad a result and performance as Newcastle supporters have seen in an age. Out-thought in the dugout and out-fought on the pitch, Sunday was an era-defining capitulation that Alan Pardew may never quite be forgiven for. I mean, have you ever been so angry that you had to punch a horse? The English language doesn't even have a word for that emotion.

While the post-mortem begins for the home side today, Sunderland can enjoy the week in the knowledge that the result represents a huge step towards securing their status as a Premier League club. It would be dangerous for them to get carried away, but for 90 minutes at St James' Park - and 45 minutes at Stamford Bridge - Sunderland looked like a club going in the right direction.

Despite losing his job in the aftermath of defeat to Manchester United, the last nail in Martin O'Neill's coffin came at home to Norwich City. Presented with a much needed gift horse in the shape of Mark Bunn's first half sending-off, they not only looked the thing in the mouth but fed it an exceptionally juicy carrot and allowed it to trot off back to Norfolk with a share of the points.

On the pitch that day, the lack of desire was alarming. Tackles were limp and half-hearted, players weren't pressured in possession until they physically ran into an opponent, and Sunderland looked about as threatening as a tea cosy with a picture of a meadow on it. It was the sort of half-hearted non-performance that quite literally gets teams relegated.

Not even a month later, and with the exception of absentees Steven Fletcher and Craig Gardner, the exact same set of players lined up at St James' Park and tore into Newcastle. Pressing and pressurising from the very first whistle, they showed an intent and ferocity that made them unrecognisable from the team Martin O'Neill was slowly taking into the next division. They managed just 11 tackles and nine interceptions against the ten men of Norwich; they more than doubled that figure against the 11 men of Newcastle. All that's really changed is the man on the touchline.

In their 180 minutes under Di Canio, Sunderland have gone from looking like a nervous group of Pandas about to frigid themselves out of existence to a pack of Lions on the sort of stag do that ends up in the local paper. But they've not suddenly become a better bunch of footballers.

They're still a poor side in term of technical quality. Adam Johnson still struggles against a full-back with half a brain; their midfield is devoid of any door-openers; and Stephane Sessegnon's excellent performance yesterday was over a year in coming. But the determination and steely resolve the Italian has roused will likely see them do enough to stay in the division. Which is, ultimately, his only brief.

His challenge now, though, is to maintain these gritted teeth and unblinking glares over the final few games. There's another level of motivation required if they're to start taking the initiative in home games, rather than rampantly chasing down when playing away. Sunderland still have a fight on their hands. But at least it's not with a horse.

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