Sunderland are still some way from emerging, blinking, into broad daylight but for the moment at least they have escaped the bottom three.

Adam Johnson's early goal was sufficient to offer Gus Poyet's League Cup finalists real hope of avoiding relegation on an intensely nervous night when Stoke were dragged right back into trouble and could have done without being reduced to 10 men following Steven N'Zonzi's contentious sending-off for a second bookable offence.

"It feels like a big win," said Charlie Oatway, Poyet's assistant, who, with the home manager feeling unwell, assumed post-match duties. "It's nice to see smiles rather than strained faces."

With equally important League games at Newcastle United and at home to Hull City impending, he and Poyet believe Sunderland have reached "a moment of truth". Their players certainly appeared to have absorbed the message that beating Stoke was imperative.

With much of the play going through the initially impressive Ki Sung-yueng in midfield, Adam Johnson sparkling on the right wing and Marcos Alonso attacking intelligently from left-back, Sunderland began brightly.

They had created a few chances by the time Johnson's adroit, angled close-range right-foot finish sent them into a deserved lead after Asmir Begovic could only parry Fabio Borini's shot. The clever touch which took Borini beyond Glenn Whelan was emblematic of the team's pleasing evolution under Poyet.

Lee Cattermole's place in the Uruguayan's 'velvet revolution" appeared doubtful after Sunderland's enforcer failed to make the substitutes' bench, officially due to a "calf injury". Mark Hughes covets Cattermole and the way he straight-batted questions about him suggested that a player who divides Wearside opinion could be en route to the Potteries before the weekend. By then Sunderland hope to have signed the Brighton midfielder Liam Bridcutt.

With Stoke's debutant Peter Odemwingie struggling and Peter Crouch rarely having a touch, Hughes's side– with relegation worries of their own– began firmly, if deceptively, on the back foot.

Not that Poyet could relax. If Vito Mannone remained underemployed for long periods, a reminder of the fragility of Sunderland's lead came as the increasingly influential Charlie Adam sent a left-foot shot swerving inches wide.

Once Erik Pieters started overlapping from left-back, Stoke perked up considerably. When Adam crossed and Ryan Shawcross found himself unmarked in the box, Mannone was called into action, the Italian saving the defender's header superbly.

Hughes's rising optimism levels sank at the start of the second half when N'Zonzi was dismissed for collecting a second yellow card after tugging Jozy Altidore back just outside the 18-yard area. "A poor decision from the referee," said Hughes. "It was unbelievable. It meant the best team didn't win."

The stage was set for Sunderland to extend their lead but despite some smooth, slick passing from Ki and flashes of Johnson's skill, Stoke defended well.

Rather more alarmingly from Poyet's viewpoint, the visitors began to threaten on the counterattack with Mannone required to save smartly from Odemwingie. That little fright unnerved the home side. With even Ki guilty of dangerous concessions of possession Sunderland seemed to freeze in the bitter Wearside chill as the crowd endured a horribly nervous finale. When the final whistle blew, their team's emergence from the bottom three for the first time since August was greeted with gusto worthy of a World Cup win.