Sunderland's back four have been much maligned this season, and with good reason. Conceding an average of 3 goals a game for a spell is not a solid platform for wins, and it's that poor record that has found us in a mess at the bottom of the table. However, there have been signs of improvement recently under Gus Poyet, and it can't be a coincidence that his team's defence has looked a lot sturdier with the return of Wes Brown.
The former Man United centre half made his first Premier League start since January 2012, and was in imperious form, stopping a normally potent City side, who had scored 12 goals in the previous week, from having so much as a sniff at goal. Man City, lacking creativity for much of the game, were mostly restricted to set-pieces and shots from distance, as Sunderland held firm to gain a much needed win to lift them just three points from safety.
The possession based game Poyet is starting to implement was on show here in the first half. The team's passing was as crisp and precise as it has been in a long time, with Ki Sung Yeung particularly superb, constantly providing the link between attack and defence. Yet it was a hopeful ball over the top that gave Sunderland their winning goal on the 21 minute mark.
Wes Brown, seeing the run of Bardsley, played the ball from the half way line, and the right back, who went a long way to paying back the fans for his recent misdemeanour's with a terrific performance, fought his way past James Milner, cut inside, and finish superbly on his right foot from a tight angle. Man City claimed a foul on Milner, with Bardsley apparently pulling the midfielder down, but it would have been a harsh one to give.
However, Man City can perhaps feel aggrieved that Sunderland had eleven men on the field at that stage. The otherwise excellent Seb Larsson produced a rash challenge on Javi Garcia just minutes before the goal, his foot raised high and down the Spaniard's leg. You would suspect that if Lee Cattermole had produced the challenge, the team would have gone down to ten men.
City continued to struggle, with Sunderland keeping possession very well. Ki, who controlled the midfield during the first half, could have set Fletcher away shortly after the first goal, but mis-judged the Scottish strikers run. Man City were largely reduced to shots from distance, the strike force of Aguero and Negredo barely getting a touch of the ball.
Indeed the away side's first chance didn't come until after the half hour mark, where Aguero spurned a glorious chance to equalise. Kolarov got down the left hand side, and his cross found the Argentine at the far post. With the goal gaping, the in-form striker somehow headed wide. It proved to be their best chance of the half. City's opportunities continued to be limited to long shots and set-pieces, and with Sunderland's defence performing so well, they never troubled Vito Manonne.
The second half saw a change as Jesus Navas came on to give Man City some pace and width. He made an instant impact as the away side finally began to take control of the game. The second 45 minutes would be, more or less, all one way traffic.
Navas's first action was to put a dangerous cross in from the right, which Negredo, leaning back, could only head over. His next cross was cleared well by Celustka, and it looked like City had finally found a creative outlet.
From a throw-in Aguero turned John O'Shea far too easily, before charging down the right and cutting back to Navas, His shot was blocked by the excellent Bardsley. Navas again provided a dangerous pass just minutes later, playing an intelligent ball across the face of the goal, only for it to go past Aguero and out for a goal kick.
By this stage, Sunderland were struggling to get out of their own box. The possession of the first half was substituted for sitting deep and defending in numbers, with every player putting in total effort to keep their opponents out. City were forced to be patient, but struggled to carve out a clear opportunity. Milner hit a long ranged effort over the bar, before Micah Richards's shot went straight to Mannone.
As well as the superb Brown and Bardsley, Sunderland's goalkeeper was in very good form, bravely collecting crosses and controlling his area. He produced a great save from Aguero after 68 minutes. The Argentine turned and shot from the left hand side of the area, and Manonne had to be at full stretch to turn the ball round the post.
It proved to be the visitors best chance of an equaliser as the home side continued to frustrate Manchester City. Every effort was blocked, and every set-piece and cross cleared with relative ease, usually by Wes Brown. His quality lifted the rest of the defence, with his partner John O'Shea looking the most assured he has for a long time. Bardsley blocked every cross that came from Navas and Pablo Zabaleta down the right.
With 3 minute added on at the end of the match, it was Bardsley who dealt with Man City's last threat. A free-kick was conceded just on the right hand side of the box. Kolorov's in-swinging ball was headed behind by the full back, and the resulting corner was cleared. The final whistle went and Sunderland had completed another remarkable home win against Manchester City.
It's a vital win for the Wearsiders. After looking dead and buried in the relegation zone after last weekend's implosion against Hull, we now find ourselves just three points from safety, with the team showing real signs of improvement. The possession game of the first half points to the future, with Ki the perfect player for Poyet's preferred system. If Sunderland can take the momentum into two difficult, but winnable, trips to Stoke and Aston Villa, then safety is certainly achievable. Though a lot may well depend on how many games we can get out of the injury prone, but magnificent, Wes Brown.
We'll have more reaction with further thoughts and player ratings in our match stream HERE.