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Cambridge United v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One

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Finlay’s Report: It cannot be understated just how important that win was for Sunderland

Sunderland are - contrary to popular belief - currently in a good place, three points off top with a game in hand, and still very much in the hunt for promotion.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

For Sunderland, the significance of this win is unimaginable.

After the week that Lee Johnson’s side had to tend with, a win was at the very least what the Black Cats needed, but the circumstances of the afternoon turned this victory into a huge one for all concerned.

And just like last Saturday, the adjective ‘huge’ probably doesn’t quite cut it – the reward was the same as last week, but the importance was rather different.

The disappointing 1-1 draw against Shrewsbury on Tuesday night heaped more pressure on Lee Johnson, but it seems to have elevated - not much, but enough to give him some breathing room.

On Saturday, there were some issues that you just can’t manage players on, with the impact of Storm Arwen being felt dramatically - especially in the second half - when the Black Cats had to be switched on, and deal with an abundance of set pieces dropping into the penalty area.

The significance of this victory is huge within the context of Sunderland’s season and the past couple of weeks.

The Lads have been lacking consistency and danger within the final third over recent weeks, but on Saturday, they dug deep; they produced a threatening display with the enforced tactical switch, and contended with absurd weather conditions.

Sunderland AFC v Mansfield Town: Emirates FA Cup First Round Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

And it’s something that we haven’t seen so far from Sunderland this season. At Portsmouth, they were bullied in the rain, and used the stormy weather conditions as their excuse in a match in which they were second-best, and pushed off the Fratton Park turf.

Lee Johnson was imperative that Sunderland would use that experience to make them a better side and would “learn their lessons” from that defeat, and Saturday proved to be their first test after the Pompey battering, and one which they passed with partial conviction.

Yet, Sunderland had to do this one without some of their most experienced figures. Aiden McGeady’s knee injury leaves him out for 2-3 months; Luke O’Nien shoulder injury seems to have caught back up with him, and he potentially faces up to 9 months out; and Corry Evans dropped out of the starting 11 in the warm-up with a thigh problem.

We’re short on senior players, and for Sunderland, it’s what made this win taste sweeter.

During the opening stages, that tactical switch mounted for a lot of Sunderland possession in the early stages, with the opening goal proving to be crucial.

Lee Johnson’s side found lots of joy out wide but lacked an end-product in the centre, with Lynden Gooch’s teasing cross missing the head of Ross Stewart by inches - but, after Sunderland’s early efforts, an opening goal proved to be a reward, even taking into consideration the circumstances.

Pritchard’s corner was whipped into the back post, and with the added assist from Storm Arwen, the ball crashed against the right post, deflected off the Cambridge goalkeeper and crossed the line.

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

Sunderland’s high press was delightful, rendering Cambridge unable to build any sort of momentum, but when the U’s were finally able to beat the press, they seemed more dangerous and had a larger sense of urgency.

Former Norwich midfielder Wes Hoolahan was a thorn in our side and was at the heart of all of Cambridge’s attacks - and based on Sunderland’s recent results, it was no surprise that they were pegged back.

After Hoolahan carried the ball forward, a potential penalty appeal was waved away and the ball dropped at the feet of Sam Smith, who switched the ball onto his left foot, before sliding it through the fingertips of Thorben Hoffmann and into the bottom right corner.

Yet still, Sunderland looked positive in their approach, and still found joy in possession in the final third, with the wind playing a gigantic role in proceedings.

Ross Stewart was a handful as he always is, and his shot from just outside of the penalty area rolled into the gloves of Dimitar Mitov.

But, Sunderland re-took the lead in superb fashion not long after.

After the Black Cats were able to wriggle their way out of a tight space in the corner, Broadhead picked the ball up in the centre of the pitch and turned, before sending a thunderous shot into the top left corner to send Sunderland into the half-time interval with a one-goal advantage.

The second half was always going to be a huge test as we faced the adverse weather conditions that the home side were made to deal with in the opening 45.

It was a half of football that was spent in the air, despite the treacherous wind, but when Sunderland looked to counter with speed we looked dangerous, with a major penalty appeal from Ross Stewart waved away as he was shoved off the ball by Conor Masterson just inside of the area.

From there it was largely one-way traffic as Johnson’s men were unable to build any sort of pressure, and Cambridge began to dominate.

Chances from Joe Ironside and Paul Digby both tested Thorben Hoffmann but the Sunderland goalkeeper was able to deal with them comfortably, before Lynden Gooch had to be on-hand to send James Brophy’s effort over the bar.

After overcoming a massive period of pressure, an injury break gave us a chance to catch our breath, and we began to regain a foothold in the match. We looked a threat on the counter-attack and probably should have put the game to bed earlier.

Stewart slipped the ball forward to Nathan Broadhead, but he curled his effort just around the right-post, before the same combination linked up for Broadhead again to fire wide with another chance moments after.

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

Despite Cambridge's pressure in the five minutes of injury time, Sunderland held on for what is a massive three points, especially considering our coming run of fixtures.

Games against Oxford, Morecambe and Plymouth (two of those sides are within the top eight) are all massive heading into the festive period. The good job for Sunderland is that they’re all at home, and after playing so much of our football on the road, it’ll be nice to get them back on Wearside with our fans back behind them.

It’s going to be a tough two weeks coming up, and one which may define the rest of our League One season, but we are - contrary to popular belief - currently in a good place, three points off top with a game in hand, and still very much in the hunt for promotion.


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