A genuine test of Sunderland's resources is looming following the 1-0 home win over Bolton that lifted them above Owen Coyle's team and into sixth place in the Premier League. It is their highest position for nearly a decade, but a long injury list and a trip to Manchester United on Boxing Day will make it difficult for them to stay there.
John Mensah has been ruled out after injuring an ankle in this win, joining fellow-defenders Titus Bramble and Michael Turner on the sidelines. In midfield, David Meyler is injured and Lee Cattermole will be banned for the game at Old Trafford, while Danny Welbeck, the goalscorer against Bolton, is ineligible because he is on loan from United.
But, as long as Sunderland goalkeeper Craig Gordon can maintain the form he showed here, Sunderland manager Steve Bruce can return to his former club in an optimistic frame of mind.
Sunderland achieved their third successive clean sheet only thanks to a remarkable 44th minute save, which revived memories of the famous double save by Jimmy Montgomery when Sunderland beat Leeds in the FA Cup final in 1973. Gordon, a Scottish international who has missed most of the season through injury, showed tremendous reactions to turn a close-range shot from Zat Knight over the bar.
"Jim Montgomery comes to mind," Bruce said. "It was a terrific save. To produce a save like that is fantastic and will give him confidence. "It's certainly the save of the season - it will take some beating. Let's hope he has an injury free run now. We are down to the bare bones defensively, but managed to keep another clean sheet. I'm told we have got more than anybody else in the league and that's fantastic."
Bruce was more restrained, though, as he surveyed Sunderland's prospects for the rest of a season when he targeted a finish in the top ten of the league.
"I've learned not to get too carried away. We have to dampen down expectations, but we are doing very well and I believe we have a decent squad of good young players," he said. "If we stay where we are until the spring, we may be able to mount a challenge to finish higher. That would be fantastic."
Welbeck and Cattermole were other central figures in a win that leaves Sunderland unbeaten at the Stadium of Light this season. Welbeck scored for the fifth time in six games, underlining why United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is certain to keep him after his loan expires at the end of this season.
"The only chance I have of keeping him is if Sir Alex Ferguson gets drunk on his birthday on New Year's Eve. He might feel generous, but I doubt it," he said.
Cattermole, suspended twice this season and booked in the first-half, might have been sent off again for a second-half challenge on Johan Elmander.
"I think Lee is a terrific player and I never want to see a player sent off. I want 11 v 11. But the lad was on a yellow card and clearly fouled Johan. He was nowhere near the ball," Coyle said. "Steve Bruce felt he got the ball, so I said it was a difference of opinion because he got nothing of it. The ref has a difficult job, but it was a clear foul. It happened, we moved on and took charge from that point."
Bruce admitted: "He could have a got a red card - there's no disputing that. But I thought the first yellow card was harsh, so it evened itself out. We got away with that one."
Substitute Ivan Klasnic was the chief culprit as Bolton failed to make the most of their pressure in the closing stages.
"We should have got something from the game," said Coyle. "A draw would have been a fair result, but in this league the margins are minimal and we've come on the wrong side of them. I'm disappointed in the result, but not the performance. We certainly didn't deserve to lose the match. Sunderland scored a good goal, but I always felt we could get back into the game."