Tuesday night proved to be another damaging blow for Sunderland’s automatic promotion dreams, as two set-piece calamities gave Wigan Athletic a crucial three points in their bid for survival - a bruising loss for Lee Johnson’s side.
Charlie Wyke’s goal drought was ended with a finely-composed 32nd minute strike from a superb McGeady cross, but two defensive implosions gave Will Keane and Callum Lang mightily-important goals that moved the Latics out of the drop zone.
Lee Johnson made four changes to the starting eleven after Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Charlton Athletic, which included a change in shape. Fans were anticipating Bailey Wright to return to the backline, and a late change to the squad meant that Wright partnered Sanderson. Conor McLaughlin was the player to drop out of the starting eleven, with O’Nien moved to right-back, whilst Denver Hume returned to the team.
Our forward line appeared strong on paper, as Jordan Jones and Jack Diamond returned to the Black Cats’ attack alongside Charlie Wyke and Aiden McGeady.
First Half Action
George Johnston and Will Keane had early chances for the home side, but both proved to be relatively easy saves for Lee Burge in the Sunderland goal.
From then, Sunderland looked the more comfortable side and pressed for the crucial opener. Successive efforts from Charlie Wyke and Josh Scowen failed to trouble the Wigan goalkeeper, but if Sunderland maintained their pressure, there was no doubt that a goal would have been on the way.
The Black Cats were inching closer to an opening, as Jones’ cut-back to McGeady was driven goal-wards by the Irishman, but the Wigan goalkeeper pushed the ball away for a corner.
Just as the home side seemed to fight through Sunderland’s period of pressure, the Black Cats claimed a well-deserved goal, based on the pressure within the opening half.
McGeady produced a tantalising cross for the feet of Charlie Wyke - providing him with an easy side-footed finish under the goalkeeper and into the back of the Wigan net.
Lee Johnson’s side maintained their high pressure and almost claimed their second goal, as McGeady’s free-kick skimmed off the roof of the net.
The turning point in the match came when the away side switched off from a set-piece despite looking so threatening in the attacking areas.
The corner came when Callum Lang’s right-footed shot was pushed wide of the left post by Lee Burge, and from the resulting corner, the side fighting for their lives at the bottom of the table were level.
Lang whipped the ball into the back post, where Dodoo was able to direct it back to Will Keane, who thrashed it past a stranded Lee Burge from close range.
Sunderland finished the first half on the back foot, as Keane looked to make it two quick-fire goals, but his volley was fired against the ground and over the crossbar.
Half Time - Wigan Athletic 1-1 Sunderland AFC
Second Half Action
At the start of the second half, the Latics continued how they left off at the end of the first 45, as they were looking threatening on the counter-attack with the pace of Solomon-Otabor and Callum Lang.
Despite providing a threat on the counter-attack, Leam Richardson’s side wouldn’t have expected the goal to be as simple as it was.
From yet another set-piece, a knock-on for Solomon-Otabor gave himself acres of space inside of the penalty area, as he squared for Callum Lang, who simply poked the ball in from about a yard out.
Sunderland searched for the equalising goal, and Lee Johnson was hoping that another four substitution would turn the game in the Black Cats’ favour.
One of those changes, Ross Stewart, saw his header being looped narrowly over the crossbar from Aiden McGeady’s cross.
Wigan had opportunities to extend their lead, with two falling to attacker, Will Keane. Firstly, he was slotted through on goal, but his shot was launched wide of the right post.
His second chance was almost a mirror image of his first, as he was given with space inside of the penalty area, but his attempt was fired wide of the right post, yet again.
Lee Johnson’s side were unable to establish any sort of pressure or momentum like they did in the opening 40 minutes of the match, with one of their best chances falling to Sanderson, but his header was hit against the side-netting.
Sunderland didn’t really test the goalkeeper, and for that they paid the price, as it was another damaging defeat in their automatic promotion push.
Full Time - Wigan Athletic 2-1 Sunderland AFC
If Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Charlton wasn’t the killer blow for Sunderland, this certainly felt like it.
After the weekend’s hurtful first defeat in 13 matches, everyone was expecting a response in a Tuesday’s evening trip to the DW Stadium.
And for a part of the match, there was. Sunderland’s attacking threat within around the first 40 minutes was something to be admired.
The trio of McGeady, Diamond and Jones provided to be the quality that the Black Cats were missing in the final stages of Saturday’s defeat.
They all looked lively, and you couldn’t help just think that Wigan would be taken aback by Sunderland’s creativity and quality within their final third.
For a couple of seconds, they seemed to be in awe of the Black Cats’ attack - the defence switched off as Wyke was given an easy tap-in.
The first of many... people may have thought.
But, despite all of their quality within the final third, their patched-up defensive line was exposed from a set-piece - Keane was able to somehow hold off Luke O’Nien and fire past Lee Burge.
The half-time interval may have came at a good time for Lee Johnson, but the second half continued within the same way, as the Latics looked the more threatening.
Sunderland’s most important moment of their season came as another set-piece calamity allowed Callum Lang to bundle the ball home.
The Black Cats needed something - a spark to reignite their response from the weekend. All in all, Lee Johnson’s side pushed many bodies forward - sometimes leaving themselves vulnerable on the counter - but there was no creativity to create any real openings.
Wigan were easily able to hold onto their points, and how important they may be for Leam Richardson’s side but how damaging they may be for Sunderland.
In truth, their automatic promotion dreams aren’t mathematically over; it would require a massive implosion from both Hull and Peterborough United, but realistically, it seems that it is going to have to be another play-off scrap.
Where the Black Cats will finish and who they will play is still to be determined, if Sunderland consistently continue performing like they did on Tuesday night, they may not even finish in the play-offs.
But, no one expects that to occur, if there wasn’t on Tuesday night, there definitely will be on Saturday afternoon in an absolutely massive match at Bloomfield Road.
Sunderland’s automatic promotion dreams may be realistically close to being over, but between now and May, there is still plenty to play for.