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Finlay’s Report: Credit must go to Phil Parkinson - Sunderland’s defence is seriously solid!

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“Sunderland have now kept seven clean sheets in their last eight matches - just how important to our promotion surge is it that the Black Cats maintain their solidity in defence?” asks Finlay Anderson.

Oxford United v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Sunderland showed grit, determination and spirit as they produced a superb 1-0 victory over Oxford United at the Kassam Stadium. A third minute header from Jordan Willis, which was later classed as a John Mousinho own goal, proved to be the match winner on a day where some of the results went Sunderland’s way.

Peterborough lost 2-1 against Fleetwood Town at Highbury, while league leaders, Rotherham, drew 2-2 against AFC Wimbledon at home, meaning that now only six points separate first and eighth in League One.


The Team...

For the third game in a row, Phil Parkinson started with the same starting eleven that played in both the home games against Ipswich Town and Rochdale. Chris Maguire was able to start after coming off after 72 minutes against Rochdale on Tuesday night with a dead leg. George Dobson and Max Power partnered each other in the centre of midfield, whilst Bailey Wright started his fifth successive match in a Sunderland shirt.

Oxford United v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

First Half Action

The Black Cats began the match as the better team and within a matter of a couple of minutes, they took the lead. A Chris Maguire corner from the left was diverted goalwards by Jordan Willis, and the ball took a touch off Oxford midfielder, John Mousinho, with the ball dropping in the bottom right corner.

Oxford United responded well, and tried to get the game back level directly after. Matty Taylor dispossessed a backpass from Bailey Wright to Jon McLaughlin, and aimed towards goal, but a touch from the Sunderland goalkeeper deflected the ball wide of the left post.

The Sunderland defence provided another interception not long after this when Daniel Agyei was preparing to take aim and pull the trigger, but Bailey Wright provided a superb tackle to divert the ball away from the Oxford man’s path.

Later on in the half, Karl Robinson’s side pushed for an equaliser and weren’t close from getting that. Josh Ruffels side-footed a cross into the six-yard box from the left, where Matty Taylor was waiting but, he couldn’t rise high enough to connect with the cross.

Oxford United v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Second Half Action

Moments after the restart, Oxford forced Jon McLaughlin into his first real save of the match. A cross was punched away by the Sunderland goalkeeper, but Ruffels struck the ball sweetly on the volley, meaning the Sunderland goalie had to tip it over the bar.

Just before the hour mark, Phil Parkinson made his first change of the match when he brought on Josh Scowen for Lynden Gooch. Then, only a couple of minutes later, Marcus Browne was introduced into the game for Oxford with Daniel Agyei coming off.

Despite Oxford being the team on top, Sunderland had their moments and almost doubled their advantage when Chris Maguire won the ball from Elliot Moore in the final third and his cut-back from a tight angle was blocked by the leg of the Oxford goalkeeper, Simon Eastwood.

Oxford piled on the pressure as the clock ticked closer to the end of the match and tried to find a leveller. A cross picked out Josh Ruffels at the back post, but his header struck to the side-netting, much to the disappointment of the locals.

Phil Parkinson was forced into making his second change when Bailey Wright limped off the Kassam Stadium pitch, with Alim Ozturk replacing him in the centre of defence.

Only two minutes later, Sunderland made their third and final substitution when the Sunderland boss brought on added height up top, with Kyle Lafferty replacing Chris Maguire in attack.

After five minutes of additional time, the referee blew his full time whistle, with the match ending Oxford United 0-1 Sunderland AFC.

Oxford United v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Finlay’s Verdict....

Sunderland have now kept seven clean sheets in their last eight matches - just how important to our promotion surge is it that the Black Cats maintain their solidity in defence?

At one stage on Saturday, there were two points between Sunderland and Rotherham. Sunderland’s early goal was the first one to be netted in the whole of the EFL, and then AFC Wimbledon took the lead against the Millers. Despite the score not changing at the Kassam Stadium, scores were continuously switching elsewhere, just like the League One table.

Going into added time, the gap between us and Rotherham opened to five points, but a late penalty from Kwesi Appiah meant that only three separate Sunderland and the league leaders. This was the same with both Peterborough and Coventry.

At one point, only one point between the Black Cats and Coventry, but with the Sky Blues’ win against Southend, the gap is now three. This emphasises how important it is that Sunderland keep winning. As long as the Black Cats still keep grafting away like they have been in League One since the turn of the year, the rewards will flow.

Just like in most of their last few matches, the Black Cats were out of the blocks quick and the goal came after just three minutes. Whether the goal was from Jordan Willis or an own goal can be debated for a long time, but it does look like a header from Willis. After this, the back three were solid, and the brilliant defensive performance just shows how much the three points mean for the Black Cats, as does the celebrations at the end of the match.

When the going got tough, the defence were there to protect Jon McLaughlin’s goal, whilst it wasn’t just the defence that contributed. The midfield cleared any scraps, while the attack in Charlie Wyke, Gooch and Maguire tried to add to their lead.

Any one of Sunderland’s 15 victories can be stated as a big win, but this one against Oxford epitomises what a big win is. Oxford were sniffing up Sunderland’s back before kick-off, with six points between the two teams, an Oxford win would have closed that gap to three points, but the Sunderland win opens that up to nine points.

Sunderland now have a week’s break before they face the Pirates at the Stadium of Light.

With momentum building for the Black Cats, confidence seems to be sky high for Phil Parkinson’s team, and this match against Bristol Rovers won’t be coming at a better time for them.

It seems like a lifetime ago since Sunderland were going through that blip before Christmas, but you must give credit where credit is due to Phil Parkinson. He got off to a bad start, which is something that can be said by everyone, but how he has turned it around at the club is unbelievable, and now there is a huge sense of optimism around the city.

Bristol Rovers come to the Stadium of Light after Saturday’s 2-1 win over struggling Blackpool. There was a time when Rovers were near the top of the table and battling for the play-offs, but a dip in form has found them 13th in the League One table.

Bailey Wright’s injury at the end of the match looks “serious” according to Parkinson, so there may be a change in defence, but it will give Ozturk a chance, who was unfortunate to have been dropped in the first place. Apart from that, I don’t see a need for change in the starting eleven, so hopefully we can continue our winning streak.