Sunderland have ended their seven-match winless run as they confirmed their place in the play-offs with a 3-1 victory over Plymouth Argyle at Home Park on Saturday afternoon.
Ross Stewart had given Sunderland the lead, but a Joe Edwards header had placed the home side level. Then a red card to Jerome Opoku gave Sunderland the numerical advantage, which they took full advantage with a penalty from Chris Maguire followed by a late tap-in from Denver Hume to seal the three points.
In Sunderland’s penultimate regulation League One fixture of the season, Lee Johnson made four changes to the side. The most notable were Charlie Wyke and Aiden McGeady missing out on the long trip to Plymouth.
This allowed Ross Stewart to step into Wyke’s position in attack, as the striker missed out with a thigh issue, with Jack Diamond replaced McGeady in Sunderland’s attacking midfield, with the Irishman missing out due to his broken nose and swelling on his ankle. The other change in attack came as Jordan Jones replaced Aiden O’Brien.
Sunderland’s defensive woes were shrunk, as Conor McLaughlin reappeared into the right-back role, as Max Power was pushed back into midfield.
First Half Action
Sunderland started the match at Home Park on the front foot, with Jordan Jones’ corner dropping to Bailey Wright, whose shot was blocked by a green Plymouth shirt.
The Black Cats knew that they needed to be careful when pushing bodies forward looking for the opener, with Conor Grant’s shot proving to be an easy save for Lee Burge.
Lee Johnson’s side were looking much more comfortable than in recent games, and gained their reward, with Gooch instigating the goal as he curled the ball around the Plymouth defenders for Ross Stewart. He carried it into the penalty area, before calmly rolling it into the bottom left corner.
The hosts responded positively, with a mix-up between Hume and Scowen allowing the ball to drop to Ennis, but his miss-kick dropped into the gloves of Lee Burge.
Back-to-back efforts for Lee Johnson’s side could have extended their lead, as Jones’ volley was aimed over the top of the bar, before Gooch’s long-range effort tested the Plymouth goalkeeper, by drawing a save from Cooper.
There is no doubt that Sunderland stepped up the tempo in the first half compared to other matches in the past couple of weeks, with Max Power becoming the latest to test the goalkeeper, as his arrowing shot was narrowly wide of the left post.
Ryan Lowe’s side had opportunities to place Sunderland under some pressure, as Mayor’s shot from inside of the 18-yard box was saved by Lee Burge.
It probably should have been two-nil before the half time interval, as Gooch’s shot was curled against the left post, after good play from Ross Stewart and Jack Diamond.
Half Time - Plymouth Argyle 0-1 Sunderland AFC
Second Half Action
Sunderland began the second half in the same way as they ended the first, as the half time replacement for Conor McLaughlin, Carl Winchester, had a shot that arrowed inches wide of the left post.
Within a matter of moments, the game was flipped on its head, as Plymouth began to push further forward, with Sunderland being left to rue their missed chances, as the Pilgrims equalised. Conor Grant’s cross to the back post was met by the head of Joe Edwards, who rose higher than Hume and his header proved to be unstoppable by Lee Burge.
Then, only moments later, Ryan Lowe’s side were reduced to ten men, as Opoku received his second yellow card for a reckless lunge on Ross Stewart just outside of the penalty area.
With no McGeady on the pitch, there was only one man to step up for the free-kick, as Lee Johnson replaced Diamond with Maguire. Unfortunately, the resulting free-kick was chipped over the wall by Maguire, but it clashed against the crossbar.
It would have been harsh on SUnderland if they didn’t come away from Home Park with three points, as they had the chances to put the game beyond doubt.
The latest came when O’Nien’s cross found Ross Stewart, but his header was diverted again against the crossbar, before Maguire’s volley was pushed away by the Plymouth goalkeeper.
With less than ten minutes to go, Sunderland regained a vital chance to retake the lead, with a hint of refereeing controversy.
Gooch had driven past Ryan Law, before the defender had brought him down around the edge of the penalty area, but the referee had originally pointed for a free-kick, before correcting his judgement to a penalty.
Chris Maguire had stepped up and thrashed the ball into the top left corner to put Sunderland back into their one-goal advantage.
Lee Johnson’ side assured their play-off place and the three points, with Lynden Gooch proving to be instrumental yet again, as his shot was sent goalwards, before being pushed into the path of Denver Hume, who rolled into the back of an empty net.
Full Time - Plymouth Argyle 1-3 Sunderland AFC
Normally, this should have been Sunderland’s last away trip of the season. Yet, despite this, it still feels that there are many more twists and turns to go until Sunderland’s fate is decided.
Both automatic promotion and relegation was decided on a day, where Sunderland secured their own play-off place, which will begin in the next couple of weeks. Despite claiming a play-off place, the most important factor of Saturday’s play was the first three points since early-April.
It helped to ease any nerves about whether the Black Cats may had fallen out of the play-off places, but the important factor was that Sunderland can hope to build and enter the play-offs on a fresh vain of form. The win allows fans to think that Sunderland have hopefully turned a corner, and only have one destination in May: a play-off win.
There were many positives on the day that their form may have turned around and a day that Chris Maguire finally played a part in Sunderland’s late-season campaign. With the red card to Okopu, Lee Johnson sensed this was Maguire’s opportunity to shine, as he sent out a clear message how he is still here on Wearside, and is still more than happy to fight for his shirt within the squad.
Fight for his shirt he may, but if Lynden Gooch continues his vain of form that he portrayed in Saturday’s 3-1 win, Maguire will come nowhere near the starting XI. The American thrived within his free role just behind Ross Stewart and in the centre of the park - his preferred position.
Not only did he play a part in all of Sunderland’s goals but his off-the-ball - and on-the-ball - positional play was something that Sunderland fans haven’t seen enough over the course of the past couple of seasons. He stepped up on the most vital day, as both of Sunderland’s arguable main two players were left absent from the squad.
Like the 2-2 draw with Hull at the KCOM a couple of weeks ago, it shows how Sunderland are able to produce an eye-catching performance when their major players aren’t available. Of course, some may say ‘it’s just Plymouth; they had nothing to play for’ but it could have become nervy without Lee Burge making some important saves at the start of the second half.
In all, it was just Plymouth, and it was clear how the Pilgrims weren’t fighting for anything at either the top or bottom of the table. It will be much the same next Sunday, when Northampton make the trip to the Stadium of Light, already relegated. For Sunderland, they will see it as another chance to gain some momentum - heading into one of the most important parts of their League One tenure.
If promotion is not gained in the play-offs, it will be one huge job for the Black Cats to achieve promotion in the 2021/2022 campaign. Wayne Rooney’s Derby, alongside Rotherham or Wycombe or Sheffield Wednesday, could be the teams heading out of the Championship, with all of these sides looking to bounce back into the second tier.
For now, Lee Johnson will be focused on gaining three points on the normal last game of the season, but there is still a possibility of three games after Sunday, but for now, focus on who they will play in the semi-finals.