The news from Ferryhill, Shildon or one of the North East’s airports, where the great man was on early taxi duty, is that Pete Sixsmith, the morning after the night before, is ‘still bouncing and beaming’. Ever the realist, he adds ‘and I hope I will be on Saturday night’. Here is Pete’s considered verdict on a good night for SAFC that should stiffen the players’ resolve for coming battles …
Two weeks ago, we sat in our seats and watched us push a very good Chelsea side all the way before they ran out winners by the odd goal in seven.
That result was dissipated by their defeat at Stoke and caused us to think that perhaps pushing Chelsea isn’t all that difficult at the moment. Scrappy wins against Steaua Bucuresti and Crystal Palace did nothing to challenge that belief, so there was some optimism around the sparsely attended Stadium of Light prior to last night’s game.
At 9.28pm it looked as if the Pensioners (a far more evocative nickname than the anodyne “Blues”) were going to be the team to go into the semi-final, courtesy of a routine win against a willing but limited Sunderland side.
They had scored just after half time and, although by no means in control of the game, looked to have enough nous and expertise to hang on and confine us to being free to concentrate on avoiding relegation.
And then, Lee Cattermole, playing in what appears to be the perfect role for him just in front of the back four, pushed forward, delayed his pass and eventually found Giaccherini. The resultant shot, or rather Altidore’s attempt to shoot, was blocked but was diverted to Giaccherini’s fellow Italian, Fabio Borini, who squeezed it home from a tight angle to set up extra time.
It was an extra half hour that showed us what qualities Gus Poyet and his staff have brought to the club. Picking up the shattered pieces of fragile egos after the Mussolini period, he has restored confidence and self-belief and has a group of players who want to play for him, like his way of playing and have shown they can actually play a bit of football.
The additional 30 minutes were dominated by the defensive soundness of Brown and O’Shea, the ball-winning qualities of the aforementioned Cattermole, the ability of Ki to pick the ball up and use it properly, but mostly by the combined efforts of the two Italians, Giaccherini and Borini who, more than anyone else, made it clear that they fitted in to Poyet’s style of play.
Both are quick players and have quick feet. Giaccherini is at the peak of his career (although some would argue that a move from Juventus to Sunderland represents a downward trajectory) and last night he showed all the qualities that we have hoped to see since his arrival from Turin. He was bright and lively, he worked tirelessly and he played an important part in putting Chelsea on the back foot.
His fellow countryman is much younger and is making his way in the game. His career at Liverpool has been stop start and he probably needed to get regular football, even if it was under a crazy Italian coach – fortunately replaced by a far superior Uruguayan. The Mags winner meant that he would never have to buy another Peroni on Wearside and now, there will be free Moretti for life after this excellent cameo performance.
He took his goal well but it was his link up play with Giaccherini which caught the eye. Both made excellent runs at a Chelsea defence that creaked like a pub sign in a Force 10 gale and neither Lampard nor Mikel picked them up in midfield.
In fact Poyet’s substitutions won us the game. The winner came from Ki who had replaced an ineffective Craig Gardner at just the right time. Gardner comes across as a genuine guy, a bit of a muck and nettles player who will defend grittily when under pressure but looks sadly out of place in a team where the premium is on passing accurately. I would not expect his agent to be opening new contract talks in the coming months.
Ki’s more forward position brings him into the game and he should stay there until Cattermole’s next suspension. There was one flash of the Teesside Red Smog descending in the first half when he misplaced a pass and attempted to hack down the recipient of the ball. Ki gives us a calmness that no other central midfielder really possesses; Larsson is a scurrier, Colback one-paced and Gardner just not up to scratch. Ki could well be the, er, key to our survival hopes.
If we tell Swansea he is hopeless but will keep him on because he has fallen in love with Ji Dong – Won’s sister (or maybe even Ji) we may get to keep him.
He took his goal well after earlier being foiled by a super save from Schwarzer. That header would have been a fitting way to win, but the actual winner was a really well taken goal as he turned and rammed the ball into the net – similar to the one that Altidore had put in 13 days ago.
Some of our contributors are, I feel, over critical of Altidore. He had a good game last night and worked hard throughout. Luiz and Cahill (rapidly seeing his World Cup place disappearing) found him difficult all night and his physicality created space for the Italian Connection to flourish as the game went on. He may not score many goals but in games like this, where defenders do not relish the physical aspect of his game, he is a real asset.
Defensively, we were tighter and had the advantage of not having to cope with Hazard until seven minutes from the end of normal time. Celustka looks as if he is coming to terms with Premier League football but Dossena is a worry.
The goal came from him being caught hopelessly out of position, allowing Azpilicueta oceans of room. His low cross was a good one, difficult for Mannone and even harder to defend in the six yard box. Let’s give that one to Catts rather than the easily dislikeable Frank Lampard Junior. For those who criticise Mannone (Bob Bolder, Jeremy; surely not!!!) he made an outstanding save to keep us in the game.
Chelsea have their problems. Eto’o and Ba look toothless and they are not a great defensive unit. I do like Willians and I can understand why Spurs wanted him. He is busy and thoughtful and exactly the type of player who would flourish in a Poyet side. Sign him up Gus!!!
The prospect of a semi-final is enticing, whoever we get, the prospect of doing a Wigan or a Birmingham less so. The game on Saturday is so important and Messrs Poyet, Taricco and Oatway have some hard decisions to make regarding team selection. Italians or Scots? Americans or Italians? Englishmen or Koreans? That is what head coaches are paid for and woe betides them if they get it wrong.
Whichever players are selected, they will need to replicate the spirit and commitment that was shown here. Win this one and we have a shout. Lose it and it spoils Christmas for every Red and White, whether they be in Canada, Cyprus or Coundon.
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