Malcolm Dawson writes…..with Pete Sixsmith bringing joy to the faces of the youngsters of North Tyneside after ducking into a phone box and swapping his everyday togs for those of his alter ego St Nicholas, it falls to me to bring you today’s soapbox. If only someone had warned me in advance I might have been able to mimic Peter’s insightful and witty style in my take on yesterday’s proceedings. Instead you’ll have to make do with my unexpected observations. By the way – just in case you haven’t twigged Pete will be back when festive duties don’t interfere.
Sunderland 2 Leicester City 1
A pre-match catch up with some of the lads from the Heart of England Branch meant that I only just took my seat at the Stadium of Light as the minute’s silence for the victims of the Colombian Air crash began. That, plus other events closer to home, reminded me once again that in the grand scheme of things, there are more important things in life than the result of a football match. But that said, here was another in a series of games where a positive result would have a direct effect on the fortunes of the club over the rest of the season.
Having lost ground to West Ham and Crystal Palace earlier in the year, match ups with Bournemouth, Hull, Leicester, Swansea, Watford and Burnley before we enter 2017, all give the team the opportunity to make up ground in the annual relegation struggle and the results against the first two have given us hope. Another 10 or 12 from the other four and things would look a lot brighter. Yesterday saw the first three of those go on the board. Anything against Chelsea and from the trip to Salford will be a bonus.
I think most followers of English football were glad that Leicester had broken up the cartel that has dominated the game since the advent of the Premier League, but the truth is that they haven’t the resources of the Man Cities and Uniteds, Chelseas and Arsenals of this world and their league form this season is a more realistic reflection of their status. Here was another winnable game against a team that had only taken one point away from home all season.
After the Arsenal match I criticised certain sections of the home support but yesterday, right from kick off, they were behind the team and it showed. It looked too as if Moyes had sent the side out with a positive mindset and unlike the Hull match we dominated the early stages of the game. Here was a team and its fans pulling together and we could easily have had a two or three goal lead with the game clock still in single figures. More of the same please. I am convinced that positive support leads to increased confidence and more effort on the pitch, even if it comes about subconsciously.
We lined up in a 4-4-2 with Denayer sitting in the holding midfield role, Djilibodji in for O’Shea and Anichibe playing wide left in a more advanced position than he had at Liverpool. What a difference he has made to the team. Not only is his ability to win the ball and subsequent hold up play excellent, the difference in Defoe’s body language is noticeable with Anichebe alongside him. In fact the whole team seem less fearful when in possession having him as an outlet.
So we set off at a pace. Watmore had a decent shot within the first two minutes and Anichebe and Defoe both had good efforts diverted over the bar by Morgan. We could have had a penalty when Anichebe was manhandled inside the box by Robert Huth and Defoe scuffed a shot which he would expect to convert seven or eight times out of ten.
Leicester were playing a narrow formation and this gave Jones and PvA plenty of space down the flanks and we looked dangerous every time we got wide behind their defence. Denayer was looking assured in front of the back four, winning the ball when necessary and distributing it effectively. The centre back pairing looked more like an established centre back pairing than earlier in the season. Djilibodji actually played like a centre half and a lovely little bit of trickery to create space for a clearance indicates a growing confidence. Kone seemed more like his old self, using his muscle and radiating enthusiasm, something we haven’t seen for a while. Team spirit seems much improved and at last Moyes seems to be getting them playing as a unit, with the new dimension that Big Vic has brought being the catalyst.
N’dong is a curate’s egg. He ran around winning the ball, and negated Albrighton and Mahrez but every now and then he would dwell on the ball or a loose pass would undo his good work. Still he seems to be finding his feet and with Cattermole out long term he will play a key role in the run up to New Year. Watmore too looked lively combining well with Jones down the right and obviously has been told to get in the box more and his long range shot on twenty minutes had Zieler beaten but flashed wide.
As it was we couldn’t find the net and Leicester gradually established themselves. At one point a shot/cross scraped the top of the bar but in truth Pickford was rarely troubled. After 30 minutes it was a more even contest and I was beginning to fear that we might rue not capitalising on the chances we had had.
Last season’s wunderkid, Jamie Vardy was largely anonymous and a shot that was well wide of the target and a poor header when he eventually found some space in front of goal showed why he has failed to score for 16 or so games.
Pienaar who had been lively in midfield, putting in a shift and breaking up Leicester attacks suffered a nasty blow to the head just before half time. I didn’t see it but the animated bloke in front of me claimed it was an elbow. Marriner gave nothing.
Nil-nil at the interval was scant reward for a decent first half performance from the lads in red and white.
The early season hasn’t been kind to us with regards to injuries. With Gooch and McNair the latest victims it was just as well Kirchhoff and Larsson had reached a stage where they were fit enough to make the bench and boy did we need them. With Pienaar suffering from the blow he took to the head just before half time and with Denayer apparently suffering from a virus both came on for the start of the second period.
Leicester had the first chance of the second half but the ever improving Djilibodji got into the right position to deny Slimani allowing Kirchhoff to clear the danger. Then five minutes later the substitutions bore fruit as we won a corner, the Swede banged the ball in from the right and the big German climbed above the crowd. His header wasn’t the best but Huth running back to cover could do nothing as the ball struck him on the chest and he bundled the ball into the back of the net to a crescendo of sound from the home support. Who needs cardboard clappers?
Not long afterwards Seb and van Aanholt played a neat one two in the left corner, PvA repeated the move with Anichebe and as he drove into the box he was clipped quite clearly by Danny Simpson. Not the most malicious of fouls but enough to cause the Dutchman to lose his balance and a certain penalty. Except in the eyes of André Marriner who shook his head and waved his arms. Later he was to book van Aanholt for a dive when he was again fouled, waved play on when Defoe was manhandled off the ball then booked Larsson for a similar foul. The referee was never on my Christmas card list but he’s not going on it either after yesterday’s performance.
Still it mattered not as once more some interplay down the left hand flank presented Watmore with a chance to shoot. The unfortunate Huth stuck out a boot to block the shot and simply deflected the ball straight into JD’s path and another clinical finish brought him his 151st Premier League goal. Game over. Well not quite.
A few minutes earlier JD had a powerful shot well saved by Ziegler and as always I never feel relaxed until we have at least a three goal lead and the Foxes pulled one back when Okazaki made a good run to steal in front of Djilibodji at the near post to reduce the deficit. But we hung on. Towards the end of the 6 minutes of added time (necessary because of what looks like a nasty injury to Watmore) City had a corner and up came their big keeper to see what he could do. Not a lot as it happens but after a bit of ping pong in and around the box Pickford got up off the deck to make a stunning save from Morgan whose follow up mercifully went sailing into the North Stand.
At half time a few of the 73 Cup winning side made the 50/50 draw and a somewhat embarrassed Jimmy Montgomery was pressed into a half time interview as Bobby Kerr, Vic Halom, Micky Horswill all sloped off feigning deafness as the stadium announcer pleaded for a few words. Pickford’s last minute save might not have been as good as Monty’s in 73 but his celebration was and as the final whistle blew the manager did a slightly understated version of Bob Stokoe’s tracksuit, overcoat and trilby charge to congratulate the young keeper.
So three valuable points. West Ham, Burnley and Swansea all lost and we make our highest league position so far this season. With Boro playing Hull tomorrow we may find ourselves back in 19th position or four points behind the Teesiders but things are looking better.
The injury list is a worry and the African Cup of Nations may impact in January but yesterday showed something of the spirit, effort and organisation that will be needed if we are to climb up the table. It’s still a work in progress but the signs are better. A win in Wales would be good.
Ha’way the Lads