At one point during today's proceedings, Sunderland were 11th, and had secured their Premier League status for another season. Of course things rarely work out this perfectly on Wearside. The Black Cats conceded an equaliser, which means a nervy Tuesday night will be in store for fans watching Wigan's trip to Arsenal. Should Wigan win at the Emirates, it will make for a nervy final day, with the Latics just a point behind and Sunderland facing a tricky trip to Tottenham.
If the players knew a win would keep them up, they certainly didn't play like it in the first half. With Sessegnon still suspended, Sunderland lacked a focal point in attack. Adam Johnson provided this in the second half against Stoke, but he struggled to produce a similar performance as Southampton started the brighter. Nathaniel Clyne waltzed through the Sunderland defence, only to see his pull back to Rodriguez blocked.
Despite their dominance in possession, the Saints didn't produce an awful lot, with Ricky Lambert's effort from distance saved comfortably by Simon Mignolet. Indeed it was Sunderland who almost opened the scoring on 40 minutes. Seb Larsson's corner found John O'Shea at far post, who headed back to Johnson. The winger's shot from 12 yards was tame, and ended up straight into the hands of Southampton's big breasted keeper Artur Boruc.
With half-time approaching in merciful fashion, the Saints had an excellent chance of their own. Breaking from the back quickly, the ball came to Steven Davies who hit a long ball to Lambert. Although it initially looked like he'd played it too far, Lambert took it down superbly with his head to put himself through on goal, only to scuff the shot straight at Mignolet. Like music to the ears of the crowd, the referee blew his whistle to bring an end to a tedious first half.
Paolo Di Canio introduced Connor Wickham at half time, replacing James McClean and he made a big impact, giving Sunderland the focal point they lacked. It was his strike partner Danny Graham who could've given the Black Cats the lead early in the second half however. Jack Colback, industrious and excellent all game, linked up well with Danny Rose, and the left back, playing the last game of his loan spell, delivered a low ball into the box, only for Graham to miss the ball entirely. It summed up the day of the former Swansea man, who's been woefully out of form since joining Sunderland.
Despite a much improved performance for Sunderland after the break, Southampton still threatened, particularly from set pieces. Jay Rodriguez found sufficient space in the box twice from corners to get free headers in, forcing Mignolet into saves; the Belgian keeper showing the kind of form that will surely lead him to pick up all of the 'Club Player of the Season' awards going.
Despite the threat the Saints posed, Sunderland kept the pressure up, with Wickham a huge physical threat. Rose and Colback continued to link up well down the left hand side, and a series of crosses flew into the box. One of these crosses was cleared only as far as Adam Johnson on the right. He found Bardsley just outside of him who struck a powerful shot into the back of the net to give his side the lead. Replays showed a slight nick of a Southampton defender, but it was an unstoppable strike from the right back. If Sunderland had held onto that lead, they would've secured Premier League survival. However the Saints had other ideas.
Mauricio Pochettino responded to going behind by making two changes, bringing on Jason Puncheon and youngster James Ward-Prowse. The two linked up almost instantly. Ward-Prowse was found on the left, and his cross found Puncheon whose header was saved brilliantly at point blank range by Mignolet. However, Puncheon reacted quickest and his rebound ended up in the back of the net. Saints were level, and the momentum swung in their favour in the closing stages of the game.
Indeed Southampton came very close to finding a winner with just three minutes of normal time remaining but Rickie Lambert's volley from inside the box was saved magnificently by Mignolet down low to his right hand side. It remains to be seen just how crucial that save was, but what can't be doubted is that without the Belgian's contributions this season, Sunderland fans would already be preparing themselves for trips to Doncaster and Burnley next year.
As it is, this result edges the Black Cats towards Premier League survival, with anything but a Wigan win on Tuesday would secure safety; and it would be a huge surprise if the Latics got all three points from an Arsenal side chasing a top four finish. Of course, as their FA Cup exploits have shown, they are certainly capable of it, and everyone involved with Sunderland will be in for a nervy night while watching their TV screens.
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