Sunderland fight back to earn valuable three points against Bristol Rovers
If Stewart Donald's optimism regarding a new contract for Josh Maja proves to be well placed, Sunderland's promotion chances are set for an almighty boost.
The 19-year-old may not be the complete article yet but the quality of his finishing was on show again as secured a valuable win for his side against Bristol Rovers.
His wonderful finish early in the second half helped Sunderland turn around an early deficit to apply welcome pressure on the League One top two.
They were not always at their best and almost lost out in the final seconds when the visitors hit the bar, but the win was just about deserved thanks to the number of openings they carved out throughout the contest.
Their preparations suffered a late blow when Reece James had to be replaced by Bryan Oviedo, and they struggled in a poor opening that left them chasing the game.
Tony Craig missed a glorious opportunity to put the visitors ahead when he headed a free-kick wide from close range, not picked up by any Black Cat defender.
That was an extraordinary let off but it didn't last long.
The Sunderland defence failed to deal with a ball into the box from the right flank, Alex Rodman on hand to score a simple finish.
Jack Ross's side were perhaps guilty of attempting to force the play too much, badly exposed when they did lose the ball.
The absence both of James and Tom Flanagan was noticeable in an uncertain backline.
When Sunderland did build it up patiently, they caused problems for the hosts.
A fine move saw Oviedo cross for Lee Cattermole, who connected with a sweet half volley that rattled the crossbar.
Both Josh Maja and Lynden Gooch missed decent openings before the equaliser came just before the break.
It was a superb team move, starting with a clever backheel from Lee Cattermole. George Honeyman then laid it off to Lynden Gooch,who spun away from his marker and found Aiden McGeady in space on the left. His cross was turned away by Jack Bonham but Adam Matthews was there to head home the loose ball.
It took just four minutes of the second half for Sunderland to take the lead.
They survived an early scare when Jack Baldwin lost the ball in a dangerous position, the centre back just about recovering to clear the ball.
Shortly after they broke free through the middle, McGeady attacking space.
He found Maja on the edge of the area, the 19-year-old committing his marker with a clever feint, before finding the bottom corner in trademark fashion.
The conditions significantly worsened, driving rain and wind hampering both teams in their attempt to get the ball down and create opportunities.
The tempo dropped markedly, though Ross will have been pleased that his side were significantly reducing the openings for the opposition.
His main concern was an injury to Jon McLaughlin, the influential Sunderland goalkeeper struggling for much of the half and eventually taken off.
Substitute Robbin Ruiter was rarely called into action, however, and it was the Black Cats who came closest to scoring again.
Max Power rattled the crossbar with a superb drive, the ball breaking for Chris Maguire, who then found the foot of the post with his effort.
McGeady fired wide on the break soon after and those misses almost cost the Black Cats dear.
Rovers broke free with just seconds on the clock and were immensely fortunate that substitute Steffan Payne could only hit the bar as he advanced into space.
Sunderland held on for three valuable points.
Sunderland XI: McLaughlin (Ruiter, 75); Matthews, Loovens, Baldwin, Oviedo; Power, Cattermole, Honeyman; Gooch (Watmore, 83), McGeady, Maja (Maguire, 75)
Subs: McGeouch, Ozturk, O'Nien, Sinclair
Bristol Rovers XI: Bonham, Rodman (Payne, 75), Clarke, Lockyer, Craig, Kelly, Holmes-Dennis (Nichols, 67), Clarke, Upson, Sercombe (Bennett, 63), Jakubiak
Subs: Smith, Broadbent, Leadbitter, Russe
Bookings: Upson, 35 Honeyman, 57 Gooch, 83 Kelly, 83 Matthews, 90 Clarke, 90