Pete Sixsmith was hardly alone in fearing the worst at Anfield. He is too long in the tooth to conclude from one improved display that Sunderland are on course to survival. The work that still needs doing is self-evident. It may be fully understood without lowering ourselves to more cliched talk of ‘must-win’ games. Pete is not responsible for the shameless headline; Monsieur Salut just happens to believe it to be the case …
As I took the prosaically named “Soccerbus” back to Sandhills station, two Liverpool fans of my generation were discussing the game.
“They didn’t look a relegation side, did they?” said one of them. His mate agreed with him and said he thought that the game against Spurs at the weekend would be more difficult as “they won’t defend as much as Sunderland did and we can get behind them”.
It’s always interesting to hear how others have seen us and I was quite heartened by this exchange. But, as I said in Sixer’s Sevens, no points and we are now living very much on our nerves as the games slip by and we are stuck in a desperate situation in the relegation places.
This was as different from Saturday as Timothy Taylor’s Landlord is from John Smith’s Extra Smooth. On Saturday the general consensus was that the players didn’t care and that the head coach was in trouble. Last night, the general consensus was that the players had given everything and that the head coach had shown a great deal of tactical awareness. But still no points.
The line-up and the format changed. We employed three central defenders with the full backs pushing forward, then two central midfielders with another as a link to the two forwards. It was much more effective than Saturday and it saw three regulars dispatched to the bench as Ki, Johnson and Colback were replaced by Cattermole, Wickham and Vergini. But still, no points.
Vergini struggled, particularly in the first half and could have been sent off for his foul on Suarez. May I suggest that Mr Friend had already seen the wily Uruguayan go down twice when not tackled and showed some sympathy to our Argentinian version of Kyriakos?. Some may argue that we got what we deserved when Gerrard rammed home the free kick. Don’t include me in that group.
The new set up was quietly effective. O’Shea had an outstanding game and was instrumental in causing Suarez, Sturridge and Gerrard to shoot from a distance rather than playing their usual killer balls in the box. If he was beaten, Brown was there and both full backs worked hard to clear their lines.
In addition, Cattermole and Bridcutt gave us a solid base to go forward. Unfortunately, Cattermole was caught turning by Coutinho and it was his splendid pass that put Suarez in. Rodgers had clearly pumped the brains of Mignolet and Henderson and they will have told him that Cattermole had the turning circle of a 1966 Hillman Minx.
The second goal from Sturridge should have been closed down by Dossena but wasn’t and it took a deflection off Brown. We stood grim faced, expecting the cricket score that most had predicted. But it didn’t come.
The changes that Poyet made were not universally popular. No problems in replacing a wilting Giaccherini with Ki, but boos and catcalls when he replaced Wickham with Johnson. My view was that Wickham had done well enough and that Johnson might just give us something extra. On top of that, Altidore was having one of his better games and was actually leading the line rather than aimlessly running around.
We looked a far better side once the changes were made. Cattermole hit the bar (as did Sturridge) but with Ki and Johnson running at Liverpool, they looked worried. Allan faded away completely and Henderson struggled. Their midfield, which had looked good going forward, looked distinctly average when we ran at it.
That put pressure on their defence which does not look as commanding as one would expect from a team with title ambitions. Skrtl is fine when he can use his strength but he does not read a game very well and the marking when Ki headed in was as good as some of ours has been over this disappointing season.
They were looking even shakier five minutes from time when O’Shea fluffed a great chance to level. Had he put this one in, we may even have gone on to steal a famous victory – but we didn’t and we came away with our heads held high, but no points.
This line up can be amended by the return of Alonso and maybe using Roberge instead of a shaky Vergini. What we must do is seize the initiative on Monday night and take the game to West Ham. Knowledge of Allardyce suggests that he will be content with a point. Maybe Altidore will rise to the occasion; he is now just above Andy Gray in my list of worst ever Sunderland forwards in the top flight. A couple of goals and he will be closing in on Ian Wallace.
I am writing this in Southport where I am holed up on a short break at The Hotel Hampton (proprietor Ms D Sixsmith). Tonight, I shall be accompanying a knowledgeable and erudite friend to Southport v Forest Green Rovers and will be interested to hear his views. Tomorrow is the real game – St Helens v Leeds. Perhaps Jozy could turn out for the Rhinos as a prop!!