There was a pre-match worry that we'd be a little knackered after an exhausting victory over Manchester City on Sunday, but that certainly wasn't the case for large parts of the game down at the DW Stadium tonight as we routed Wigan 4-1.
Changes were once again made to the starting line-up, but the Martin O'Neill juggernaut just continues to steamroll over anyone in the way. A fairly boring first half was brought to life with Craig Gardner's stunning free-kick, but the game wasn't all about that. Read our report of how things went...
Changes were afoot once again in the Sunderland side as Matt Kilgallon returned to the starting line-up for the first time in over a year, whilst Kieran Richardson, amidst speculation he could move to Arsenal this transfer window returned in midfield. Jack Colback and Craig Gardner continued at full-back and there was a spot on the bench for youngster Craig Lynch.
It was the home side who enjoyed the first chance of the game in the opening minutes when Albert Crusat out-paced Gardner to play in Hugo Rodallega, but the Colombian could only fire well over from all of seven yards.
Wigan were nearly the architects of their own down fall when an errant kick from Ali Al-Habsi fell straight to James McClean who's penetrating run lead to a decent low cross, unfortunately just behind Kieran Richardson. This was about our best moment of the first ten minutes as we were penned back by the hosts for almost it's entirety.
The Wigan onslaught kept coming, with Figueroa firing low towards Mignolet's goal but luckily Craig Gardner was on hand, as he was against Manchester City, to clear off the line.
Finally we managed to gain a foothold in the game. With Wigan messing about trying to pass their way out of defence, Stephane Sessegnon pounced on some slack control and after beating a couple of men had his shot deflected wide. The resulting corner coming to nothing of note.
Corners and set-pieces were noticeably more erratic without Sebastian Larsson in the side who missed the game with a reported hamstring injury, particularly in the first half. Bendtner found himself offside from a Richardson free-kick, whilst another corner following a nice move involving Sessegnon and the Dane ended with Richardson sending one straight into the arms of Al-Habsi.
In an opening half-hour of few real chances, one of our best came on a breakaway attack. Richardson and McClean broke with speed down the left and a delicious ball was delivered by the Irishman towards the on-rushing Nicklas Bendtner who for me didn't quite gamble enough on it, and couldn't get a telling touch from all of five yards. Meanwhile at the other end, Albert Crusat sent a weak half-volley straight down the throat of Simon Mignolet.
Mignolet wasn't on hand however moments later when Wigan struck the woodwork twice within twenty seconds. First of all a neat one-two between Jordi Gomez and David Jones lead to the latter smashing off the bottom of the post with Mignolet beaten. The rebound fell to Ben Watson, and incredibly he sent his low drive into the foot of the other post. A huge let-off as Wigan were denied a lead they may well have deserved on the balance of play, but thankfully it remained 0-0.
There was little else of note happening as the clocked ticked towards half-time. Jordi Gomez fired right at Mignolet from distance, the later the defence parted for Jones to force the Belgian into another good save, and he did well to deny Rodallega a follow up. Good to see him go in bravely despite there being every chance he'd take a kick to an already pretty battered face.
Five minutes of added time came as a slight surprise. Injuries to Crusat and Cattermole forced it, but five minutes still seemed a surprise. What was even more of a surprise was when we took the lead during that time.
A very soft free-kick given in our favour was lined-up by both Kieran Richardson and Craig Gardner from a central position. In very difficult conditions, Gardner struck an absolute peach bang into Al-Habsi's top corner. Whether the swerve was intentional guided by the gale-force winds nobody really cared as it gave us a lead. Not bad for what must have been our first shot on target.
Mike Dean called time on the half moments later and whilst we popped off for a Bovril, Wigan player surrounded the referee to complain about the freekick. It was soft, I'll give them that, but what's done is done. Ronnie Stam's complaints earning him a yellow card after the whistle had been blown.
And the second half was off to a flyer when we made it 2-0 via the head of James McClean. Once again Wigan behind their own undoing as David Jones tried to play beyond himself and lost the ball to David Vaughan twenty yards from his own goal. The Welshman's cross was met by an unmarked McClean who nodded right at Al-Habsi. He couldn't hold it, and on the rebound McClean nodded home a memorable first goal for the club.
There wasn't really much action until Hugo Rodallega pulled one back for the home side on the hour. McCarthy played in the striker on the edge of the area. He turned, shot, and with the help of a huge deflection the ball nestled in the bottom corner beyond a helpless Mignolet.
With the crowd on side and a strong wing in their favour, Wigan smelled blood. David Jones had a free-kick deflected up and over the bar form almost the exact blade of grass Gardner struck from earlier, and from the ensuing corner panic set in among the back line as Cattermole and Gardner couldn't clear and some how it was scrambled away. David Meyler came on to replace Kieran Richardson in attempt to shore things up.
With the home side camped in our half, and us playing very much on the counter-attack, there was every chance of another goal, and it came in the 73rd minute for us through Stephane Sessegnon. A long ball put through Nicklas Bendtner, and whilst Maynor Figueroa appealed in vain for a freekick, we continued to press. Bendtner looked up, saw Sessegnon and most surprising of all Bendtner played a lovely ball in rather than mess about with it and Sess met it full on from five yards to restore the two goal advantage. A move of the highest quality.
Before you could catch your breath James McClean nearly added a stunning second, even if he didn't quite seem to mean it. The ball which looked aimed towards Sessegnon seemed to catch the wind, and Al-Habsi by surprise and the 'lob' was parried away.
At the other end we continued to defend well in the elements, noticeably we just kept things simple whilst Wigan tried, and often failed, to play their way out of trouble, and as a result we were a constant threat on the counter. So whilst Connor Sammon was wasting headers at the other end, Sessegnon and McClean looked like they had the beating of their opposition at will.
And that was exactly the case in the 80th minute when David Vaughan assaulted the net with the ball. Fantastic work from McClean and Sessegnon to hold the ball up, beat a few men every now and then whilst others joined the attack and with the ball eventually breaking to Vaughan, who in turn nearly broke the net from all of 20 yards. An unstoppable drive. If it wasn't for the net doing it's job someone in row ten or eleven was going home with concussion.
From then on the jig was up for Wigan. Their heads visibly dropped whilst we looked like we didn't want it to end. Such a turn around from a month previous when Steve Bruce, with the same players at his disposal couldn't inspire the team to defeat Wigan at home.
Team (Ratings in brackets)
Starting XI: Mignolet (7), Gardner (7), O'Shea (6), Kilgallon (6), Colback (6), Vaughan (8), Cattermole (7), McClean (8), Richardson (6), Sessegnon (8), Bendtner (6)
Subs Used: Meyler (6), Elmohamady (6), Dong-Won (6)
Man Of The Match: James McClean - A tough one to call really as he and Sessegnon both enjoyed getting the better of the Wigan defence all night, but for me, for James just edges it. What a find he's turning out to be, and I do hope that this is a sign of things to come rather than a purple patch. As said, Sessegnon was excellent too, and it is hard to pick between them both as they carried the threat for the lions share of the second half. Who'd have imagined a time back in October or so when we'd have numerous candidates for man of the match?
After games like this you kind of have to pinch yourself a little. It wasn't long ago we played Wigan at home, got beat and looked awful in the process. The change in the players, the confidence and swagger about the team has to be seen to be believed, and it's a credit not just to O'Neill for bringing that in, but to the players themselves for believing in each other.
Now up to tenth in the league, and dare I say it, we look like we could be there to stay for the foreseeable future.
We're on our way.