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Birmingham City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship

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So far, so good, so promising for Sunderland!

As we pause for the World Cup we can reflect on twenty games of excitement, frustration, and flashes of real promise from the Lads.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

When Lukas Jutkiewicz guided home a well-taken strike on Friday night, giving Birmingham a lifeline and causing red and white hearts to sink momentarily, an all-too-familiar story was in danger of repeating itself.

Birmingham City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images

At 2-0 up, there was no real danger, but after one sloppy piece of defending, the opposition scored and the dynamic suddenly changed.

It’s happened plenty of times this season, but on this occasion, the story had a positive ending. Sunderland didn't panic; there was no loss of composure and the concession of a second goal- just a gritty and hard-fought slog to the finishing line.

As a response to the abomination against Cardiff six days prior, it couldn’t have been any better, and the way in which we saw the game out suggested that we are finally starting to master that most crucial of things: game management, and the art of stemming the tide when the opposition sense an opportunity.

And so, as we take a breather and try to get ourselves excited for a World Cup that feels as superficial and meaningless as any international tournament I can remember, how do we assess Sunderland’s season so far?

After twenty league games, we are on a path that, if we can stay the course, will lead us to mid-table security and maybe even more, as well a finale to the season that won’t see us relying on other teams slipping up in order to ensure survival.

A young and developing squad, under the guidance of Tony Mowbray is giving us plenty of reasons to get excited about what is being built on Wearside.

Huddersfield Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by John Early/Getty Images

Of course there have been frustrations along the way, but during very few games have we looked overawed or outmatched. Also, some of the goals we’ve scored this season have been of the highest quality, and there will doubtless be many more to come.

Moments of slackness cost us against Coventry, QPR and Norwich, and the spectacular collapse against Burnley, from 2-0 up at the break, was the starkest reminder yet that the Championship is unforgiving.

In addition, we certainly didn’t perform to the requisite level against Swansea and Cardiff, but overall, our form has essentially been exactly what you might expect from a newly-promoted side. Inconsistent, yes, but generally solid and with no cause for alarm.

Something else that offers encouragement is the fact that the players who comprise this squad, cynically dismissed during the summer as ‘only being good enough for fifth in League One’, have stepped up with aplomb.

Birmingham City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images

Anthony Patterson’s rise from National League stopper to first-choice Championship goalkeeper has been stunning; Danny Batth has been an immovable presence in defence, and the likes of Jack Clarke and Dennis Cirkin have demonstrated that, in the right environment and with the backing of the head coach, they can deliver.

In addition, Jewison Bennette has shone in flashes, and hopefully the young attacker will return to Sunderland ready to kick on after a successful World Cup campaign with Costa Rica.

In the midst of this, Mowbray deserves credit.

Brought in after Alex Neil walked out in favour of Stoke City, and shorn of his first and second-choice centre forwards for much of his time in the dugout so far, he’s ploughed on regardless, tinkering with formations and personnel and doing everything in his power to enable to the team to pick up results.

Huddersfield Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by John Early/Getty Images

At times, it’s felt as though he’s struggled to win over the fans, with some predictable accusations of him being ‘dour’ thrown about, but there was some clear logic behind his appointment.

Even if some of Mowbray’s selections, most notably fielding Abdoullah Ba and Dan Neil in midfield against Cardiff, haven’t worked, he’s been a calm and often entertainingly theatrical presence in the dugout.

With the January transfer window on the horizon, thoughts are starting to turn to who we might target for the final push.

Another striker is surely a must, and a physical, ball-winning midfielder who can take the pressure off Corry Evans would also be high on the list. Work is doubtless going on to identify targets, and hopefully our business will be done efficiently.

Overall, it has been an enjoyable return to the second tier, and with plenty of areas in which we can improve, this three-week break feels like it’s come at the perfect time, and hopefully this squad, boosted by the returns of some absent players, can continue to progress when we restart our league campaign against Millwall.

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