The leaders arrived on Wearside yesterday knowing victory would put them three points clear of arch-rivals Manchester United after their shock home defeat by Blackburn.
However, despite having to play midfielders Craig Gardner and Jack Colback at full-back and throw keeper Simon Mignolet back in at the deep end in his first appearance since fracturing his nose and an eye-socket at the end of October, O’Neill was rewarded with a third victory in five games.
He said: “Mignolet, the goalkeeper, had a mask attached a few days ago and he has been training with that for a couple of days. He has only played in small-sided games and I wasn’t expecting him to be around for maybe another three or four weeks. But when [Keiren] Westwood called in ill, he said he would play. I said to him: ‘Listen, don’t worry, even if things go badly today, don’t attach any blame to yourself’. But he was terrific.
“Seb Larsson was in bed all day yesterday and I didn’t think for one minute he would play until he said this morning he would try. I thought he might last half an hour maximum, and there he is at the end still going.”
The game was won at the very end when substitute Ji Dong-won netted. Sunderland had earlier created two gilt-edged chances to take the lead either side of half-time, but Nicklas Bendtner and Stephane Sessegnon were unable to make the most of them.
In the meantime, the visitors had hammered away at them with Edin Dzeko going close on several occasions. But it was substitutes Sergio Aguero, who forced a 59th-minute save from Mignolet, and Micah Richards, who headed against the bar with a minute of normal time remaining who came closest to winning it for the leaders.
However, with the clock having ticked into the fourth minute of added time, Ji ran on to Sessegnon’s through-ball and rounded Joe Hart to score with more than a hint of offside.