Bent scored twice to take his tally for the season to 21 goals
By Phil Dawkes
Sunderland claimed their second win in three games with a hard-fought victory over a spirited Birmingham.
The Black Cats were ahead as early as the fifth minute courtesy of a neat finish from Darren Bent from six yards.
The England striker made it 2-0 just six minutes later, finishing well after being fed in by Steed Malbranque.
Birmingham rallied well and on the hour Cameron Jerome ran clear to pull a goal back, but late on Fraizer Campbell's sliding finish sealed the home victory.
Having finally claimed their first win of 2010 with a 4-0 thrashing of Bolton on 9 March, Sunderland have, by the admission of manager Steve Bruce, begun to play with a greater freedom and style than at any other time during his tenure.
'Unbelievable' match ages Bruce
One of the chief individual beneficiaries of this has been striker Bent, who has recaptured his goalscoring touch in spectacular fashion to reinvigorate Sunderland's season and boost his chances of making Fabio Capello's squad for the World Cup this summer.
A hip injury to Kenwyne Jones, picked up in the 1-1 draw with Manchester City last Saturday, meant Bent was paired with a new partner in Benjani Mwaruwari, making his first start since joining on loan from Manchester City, and the Zimbabwean made a telling early contribution.
He found space in the box to receive the ball and just as was about to pull the trigger, Stephen Carr's tackle diverted the ball to Bent, who fired in from six yards.
It was Bent's 20th goal of the season and he would only have to wait six more minutes to notch his 21st.
Malbranque carried the ball into the Birmingham half before feeding Bent on the edge of the area and the England man turned inside the covering Birmingham defender and fired past Joe Hart.
But for goalkeeper Hart, the visitors could have been facing an even steeper second-half mountain to climb.
He produced two superb saves to keep the home side at bay - firstly parrying a powerful 15-yard strike from Campbell and then, later in the half, clawing out a Keiron Richardson curling shot from the edge of the area after the midfielder had been gifted possession by Scott Dann.
While the majority of the credit must go to the home side for seizing the initiative in attack, it is clear why Birmingham have kept only one clean sheet in their last nine matches.
However, Birmingham have recent precedent on which to draw inspiration during such predicaments, having come back from two goals down to snatch a 2-2 draw with Everton last Saturday and their response here was equally positive.
Unfortunately for the visitors, their attacking efforts were met by an inspired performance from Black Cats goalkeeper Craig Gordon, who produced a string of saves to regularly deny the visitors.
On the half hour, Carr ran to the byline on the right and crossed for Christian Benitez whose header would have found the net but for a diving save from the Scotland international, palming on to his own crossbar and over.
Not long after, Benitez engineered space in the box for a shot from 12 yards but it was saved by the arm of Gordon, who also picked himself up in time to palm away Carr's follow-up effort.
McLeish committed to Birmingham
Benitez's fellow striker Jerome could have scored a hat-trick before he eventually brought his side back into the match on the hour.
He had already badly miscued an effort wide from a Liam Ridgewell cross and then seen Gordon save well with a foot after he had run clear on goal before once again finding himself with only the keeper to beat but this time finding a finish of quality to side-foot inside the far post.
Now firmly in control and sensing a growing nervousness in Sunderland, Birmingham continued to push forward, but again found Gordon a resolute last line of home defence.
Birmingham introduced former Sunderland favourite Kevin Phillips, hoping to harness the goalscoring prowess he demonstrated in six prolific years on Wearside, but when his moment came in the 80th minute he was unable to get enough purchase on a header from a free-kick to steer it anywhere but onto the roof of the net
Inevitably, Birmingham's desperation for an equaliser left them vulnerable at the back and in the dying moments of the match Sunderland capitalised.
Jordan Henderson ran clear down the right and crossed for Campbell to slide in and finish allowing the home fans a huge collective sigh of relief.
Sunderland manager Steve Bruce:
"It was an unbelievable game of football. You know now why we age visibly in front of you with games like that.
"First half we were in complete control and then second half, for whatever reason, we let them back in.
"It seems to be ingrained here that we go from the sublime to the ridiculous. It's our day today but we made it hairy for ourselves."
Birmingham manager Alex McLeish:
"We shouldn't have lost. We had enough chances second half to win a couple of games but to be fair we could have been four down after 20 minutes.
"The start was so unlike us. Second half we were much more like ourselves and Craig Gordon has saved them from losing.
"What the players have done up until now is brilliant but I'm not going to let them saunter until the end of the season."
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