After the recent weeks of ever-changing squads and starting XIs, the sight of the team chosen by Kevin Ball for this evening's visit of the League One high fliers was refreshing in its sensibility. Opting for old heads and a formation that ensured defensive solidity alongside the potential for workable attacks, the caretaker manager made the correct decisions and was suitably rewarded.
Even in the face of lower league opposition, the preference for five midfielders was necessary. With Jozy Altidore more than capable of putting himself about up front, the selection of Lee Cattermole ensured a shield for a defence sorely lacking in confidence, while the movement of Emanuele Giaccherini into a free role proved to be crucial in the flow of the game.
The game itself started rather openly. Giaccherini found space early on, driving into the Posh penalty box, but was unable to pick out Altidore. From the resulting counter-attack sprung by the visitors, Danny Swanson sprang a save from Keiren Westwood.
Sunderland went close next, with Larsson - deployed, wisely, out wide - knocking an effort past the post, before Altidore was stopped only by a smart parry from visiting goalkeeper. Robert Olejnik.
Soon after, the referee's notebook was out, Ki Sung-Yeung going into the box for a nasty looking foul on Lee Tomlin. Contrary to the beliefs of that odious TalkSport pillock, Adrian Durham, the South Korean was not looking to injure Tomlin; instead, the Posh midfielder impressively jinked past the Sunderland loanee and was caught late. Cue chants from the away end of "You dirty Northern b*****d," swiftly followed by bemused looks from the home end. Unfortunately for Tomlin, it resulted in a premature evening for him, as he was replaced just four minutes later by Joe Newell.
As the game grew on, so Sunderland grew in confidence. Against lesser opposition this would usually expected but, hey, this is Sunderland after all. Some neat spells of possession saw the home side firmly on top, with the visitors happy to sit and refuse to relinquish too much in the way of efforts on goal.
A number of corners came to nought, as the Wearsiders slowed cranked up the pressure. With Cattermole an effective blocker in front of the defence, albeit one who ever so often followed up good work with a completely aimless pass, the men ahead were free to push on, and the visitors slowly retreated deeper and deeper.
Sunderland were rewarded just after the half hour. With Giaccherini having already missed a great chance from just six yards on the half-volley, an almost identical chance presented itself to him once more, and this time the Italian made no mistake. The ball put in from the right by Cattermole was pitch-perfect, and Giaccherini arrived right on cue, stabbing the ball home with his left foot into the roof of the net. It was well deserved.
With Giaccherini a particular highlight in the role previously reserved for one Stephane Sessegnon, Sunderland looked for a second. They almost got it too - Altidore striking a post on the counter-attack following a Peterborough corner.
Half-time arrived and, for once, Sunderland were in front and deservedly so. More importantly, in a season so far filled with defensive errors, the back four had looked solid, with Westwood a mere spectator for much of the half.
The second half looked set to continue in much the same vein. Altidore, who often cut a frustrated presence and is clearly a man in need of a goal, latched onto an excellent lofted through ball by Cattermole (yes, I've actually just said that) and bundled his way into the box, with a late saving tackle required to ensure the damage to the visitors was limited to a Sunderland corner.
Of course, Sunderland's pressure left them susceptible to Posh counter-attacks, and Carlos Cuéllar took one for the team, earning a booking for bringing down Newell as he looked to break away.
The game returned to its initial opening period, with Darren Ferguson's side looking much more proactive following the break. The sides took turns with efforts on goal: Adam Johnson's shot drifted just wide, before Newell fired a shot at Westwood following a Peterborough corner. Meanwhile, Jack Colback became the third Sunderland man to go into the book following a foul on Swanson.
On the hour, Valentin Roberge replaced John O'Shea, the latter heading straight down the tunnel with a knock. Grant McCann joined proceedings for the visitors, as the game ebbed and flowed with little in the way of efforts on goal. In truth, Sunderland looked to be tiring, and perhaps needed another substitution to mix things up somewhat.
Their fears about conceding an equaliser were allayed on 73 minutes though, when substitute Roberge effectively sealed the game as a contest. Johnson found space down the right, fired over an excellent cross, and the Frenchman rose highest, nestling a solid header into the far corner. What followed was even more encouraging, as effectively the whole side ran to the dugout to celebrate the goal with their interim manager.
From there, the game wound down without much in the way of action. The excellent Giaccherini was replaced by Fabio Borini, while Connor Wickham replaced Altidore, but not before the latter and Seb Larsson threw tantrums at one another following an attack breaking down.
For all Peterborough's pluck, Sunderland more than deserved this victory. They looked comfortable in possession and gave little away at the back; Keiren Westwood scarcely had a save to make.
It may only have been against League One opposition but, given the events of recent days and weeks, this was a refreshing victory. Kevin Ball may not wind up with the job full-time - then again, at this football club, who the hell knows what will happen? - but he certainly did himself no harm this evening. His team selection was appropriate, particularly his selection of Cattermole alongside the impressive Ki, while the freeing of Giaccherini proved to be the game's most important tactical story. The decision to select Larsson out wide, too, was a welcome one after weeks of ineffectual central showings. Also, unlike against MK Dons last month, the back four seemed to have some kind of idea of what defending actually is.
Sunderland are through to the final 16 of the League Cup. After the past weekend, it is a huge relief. Roll on Sunday.
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