Nearly the double but not quite. If Tuesday’s FA Cup exit was a disappointment for the worst of reasons, then this was one for the best. It’s never satisfactory to see a two goal cushion go in the blinking of an eye, but at least Pete Sixsmith witnessed it, unlike the Man City fans who have learned nothing from the play off final against Gillingham in 1999. In a week where partnerships have been the subject of discussion on the site it was a Scandinavian duo that almost brought home the processed pig meat …
One of the rambling conversations on Salut! Sunderland this week was about double acts, with Mike and Bernie Winters being mentioned as the unlikeliest comedy duo imaginable.
Take that a step further and you would have had the unlikeliest double of the season had we managed to hold on at Eastlands on Saturday and get the win that our superb performance so thoroughly deserved.
With five minutes to go and the City fans trickling out of the stadium, it looked as if the fortuitous winner that Ji Dong-Won had grabbed at the Stadium in January, was going to be joined by cracking goals from Seb Larsson and Nicholas Bendtner, as we took 6 points off Abu Dhabi Rovers and handed the title to Old Trafford on a plate.
Alas, it was not to be. The physical tiredness of two games in a week and the mental tiredness that comes with the high intensity game that Martin O’Neill plays, meant that we allowed the wonderfully high standards that we had set for 85 minutes to slip, enabling a ponderous and argumentative City side to grab an undeserved and, when the season is eventually weighed in, futile point.
This was the complete antithesis of Tuesday night’s disappointing performance. Once again, the tackling was crisp, the passing was sharp and the movement was fluid. We looked like a Martin O’Neill team as we showed the world that there is considerable depth in the EPL and that title contenders have to do a lot more than just turn up and go through the motions to win.
Defensively, we looked sound, with Matt Kilgallon surely doing enough to show to MON that he has a considerable role to play as a Sunderland player over the next few years. He is quick, strong and brave and like O’Shea, complements his defensive partner, Michael Turner, very well.
No Wayne Bridge , so Jack Colback reprised his defensive role as successfully as he had on New Year’s Day, reading the game well and snuffing out James Milner easily. Milner was eventually withdrawn and looked well miffed as he slumped onto the bench. Colback for England perhaps?
The midfield controlled the game and all four of them looked far more comfortable against the lumbering City giants than they did against the nippy Everton duo of Cahill and Osman. Larsson in particular was full of energy and running and his ability to get himself into the right position at the right time was reflected in the two very good goals that he scored.
Cattermole was an outstanding, leading the team well, sitting deep and breaking up the insipid City attacks and generally making football look an easy game. He was joined by Gardner, a player who was pilloried on message boards on Wednesday morning, in a central midfield that made the much vaunted Yaya Toure and David Silva look like candidates for a start in Darlington ’s next game – always assuming that Darlo would want them.
But the jewels in our crown were the front two. Sess was probably the man of the match. All three goals came from his intelligent passing and City never once got to grips with him. Wherever he went, he caused them problems and his unselfish play turns us from being a good team into becoming almost an outstanding one. MON must be desperate for him to stay next season and take us to that next level.
Another who may well be wanted for 2012-13 is Nicklas Bendtner. He gave a fine exhibition of centre forward play, scored a wonderful header from Sessegnon’s pinpoint cross and set up what really should have been the winning goal for Seb Larsson. He led the line well throughout and never looked less than the outstanding centre forward he apparently believes himself to be. I have enjoyed watching him this season – a far better player than Bent, Jones or Gyan in my opinion.
So, why did we let it slip? It certainly wasn’t due to any scintillating play from City who played like a team of plodding pachyderms throughout. The best you can say is that they kept on plugging away, showing little imagination until Balotelli produced a fizzer with 5 minutes left. That we then allowed our concentration to wander and let in Kolarov for an undeserved equaliser is something that I cannot explain.
Maybe replacing Kilgallon, who looked utterly exhausted, with Kyrgiakos upset the balance at the back. Maybe City replacing the totally ineffective Milner with the fresh legs and ideas of Pizarro gave them a boost. Maybe we were just knackered after Tuesday. Whatever, it deprived us of a famous win and we lost out at the end as we had at The Sports Direct Arena. Blast!!
Of course, we could have been 3-0 up as the penalty that Balotelli ( a man who seems to have watched Kevin and Perry so much that he has morphed into the Harry Enfield character) scored, was, to say the least, dubious. I can understand why Phil Dowd gave it – Dzeko went down over Gardner ’s outstretched leg and he (Dowd) had a split second to see it.
However, Dzeko bought the penalty. He pushed the ball past Gardner and our player was unable to get his leg out of the way. Down went the Bosnian – not a dive, but a fall that was guaranteed to get a spot kick. Clearly, their players are given instructions to do this as The Sulking One did it himself later on. On the other hand, we are naïve and not as well versed in these dark arts – yet.
The last five minutes almost spoiled a grand day. Good company on the coach, a breakfast in Uppermill made up of locally sourced food (the bacon was as good as any I have ever eaten), a hack around the country lanes and a pint of Saddleworth Mild in The Church Inn set me up for another fine Sunderland performance from players who are willing to squeeze the maximum out of themselves for Martin O’Neill.
We are now an established PL side and relegation fears are banished for the foreseeable future. Our manager has an understanding of what the club can do and where it can go. We can sit back and enjoy Stephane Sessegnon, James McClean and Nicklas Bendtner, knowing that we can play a major part in deciding who goes down and who wins the league – although I think that our stunning performance at Eastlands has already done that.
Ha’way The Lads