Byline: James Hunter's
MICHAEL CHOPRA'S fondness for a flutter may have landed him in rehab, but Roy Keane's selection gamble paid off in spades.
Chopra spent time in the Sporting Chance clinic to overcome 'personal problems' - understood to be gambling-related - but Keane took a punt on bringing him straight back into action at the weekend.
It worked a treat, with Chopra netting twice in the final 10 minutes to help Sunderland to a 2-0 Wear-Tees derby victory over Middlesbrough.
A pre-season red card left Chopra sidelined for three matches through suspension and he used the time to sort out his off-the-field problems.
Now he is back in business - and Black Cats boss Keane is delighted to have his pounds 5m hitman back at his best.
Keane said: "A lot has been made of it in the media, but it was nothing major.
"If you want to be a top footballer, your life has got to be decent off the pitch.
"Chops had things going on off the pitch and it has been a difficult time. You need a clear mind and you need to be focused and Chops was not.
"He has been away, cleared his head and he has come back as his old self again."
Chopra was on the bench against Boro but came on just before halftime to replace midfielder Teemu Tainio, who picked up a knock.
Sunderland had a huge let-off 15 minutes from time when Nyron Nosworthy conceded a penalty for a clumsy rather than cynical trip on Jeremie Aliadiere.
Stewart Downing - who had a loan spell on Wearside five years ago - stepped up to take the kick and promptly blasted it over the bar and into the travelling Boro fans.
It was Downing's second spotkick miss of the season, following his failure to convert against Stoke three weeks earlier, and it proved a turning point in the game.
Keane said: "I went to see Boro against Stoke a few weeks ago and Downing missed a penalty that day, too, but he hits the ball so well you think he is unlikely to miss another.
"It just goes to show even the top players can miss penalties."
Within seven minutes of that miss, Chopra had put Sunderland ahead, and he almost claimed a second just minutes later - but saw his point-blank header brilliantly saved by Ross Turnbull.
Eventually he did get his second goal in injury-time with a tap-in after Boro's defence was caught napping.
Sunderland's victory was their first home win of the season, and it came on the day they also kept their first clean sheet of the campaign.
That shutout was thanks in no small part to Scotland international goalkeeper Craig Gordon, who made two excellent saves with his legs in the first-half.
First he denied Downing in the 20th minute, and then a few minutes before half-time he frustrated Afonso Alves when the Brazilian was through on goal and looked certain to score.
Boro were the better side in that first period, but Sunderland stepped things up in the second and Kieran Richardson brought a good save out of Turnbull before the penalty drama at the other end set the stage for Chopra to steal the limelight.
MICHAEL CHOPRA'S heroics stole the headlines, but Sunderland needed Craig Gordon at his best - and Stewart Downing at his worst - to clinch the victory. …