Sunderland’s promotion hopes are in tatters after two defensive lapses cost the Black Cats, who head into the second leg on Saturday afternoon needing to overturn a two-goal deficit.
After the Sunderland defence wasn’t able to clear the ball, Tom Hopper poked home for a one-goal lead shortly after halftime, while a calamity at the back saw Burge kick the ball against the onrushing Johnson, who proceeded to double the Imps’ lead. Sunderland have it all to do in front of the 10,000 fans at the Stadium of Light on Saturday afternoon.
Following the season finale at the Stadium of Light ten days ago against Northampton, Lee Johnson made two changes ahead of the first-leg play-off semi-final at Sincil Bank. Tom Flanagan started in the heart of defence for the first time since the Papa John’s Trophy Final, with Luke O’Nien moving to right back.
Aiden McGeady was fit enough to start, with Jack Diamond dropping to the bench, as Johnson opted for a 4-2-3-1 approach to begin the semi-final tie.
First half action
From the start it was clear that the socially-distanced crowd would play a significant role in the outcome of the tie, and the 3,145 Lincoln fans at Sincil Bank seemed to have a colossal impact on both the Black Cats and the Imps.
It was Michael Appleton’s side who created the first opening of the game, and may have been the best of the opening 45, as Anthony Scully’s shot was tipped narrowly over the bar by Lee Burge; the referee incorrectly awarding a goal kick.
A chaotic start resulted in both teams making one change and both came in defence, as Denver Hume was unable to carry on for Sunderland – Callum McFadzean replacing him. For Lincoln, Lewis Montsma came on for Adam Jackson.
Michael Appleton’s side controlled the opening stages, and Montsma’s volley from just over 20 yards drew a save from Burge.
As the half progressed Sunderland looked slightly more threatening. On 28 minutes Flanagan’s header drew an easy save from Lincoln’s emergency goalkeeper Bursik.
After having a decent start, Flanagan almost gifted Lincoln an opening goal, as a loose pass made its way to Brennan Johnson, whose shot was pushed onto the left post.
Sunderland’s best chance of the opening 45 came just before the interval, as Gooch whipped a shot from around 25 yards out just around the left post.
Half Time - Lincoln City 0-0 Sunderland AFC
Second half action
Within the opening moments of the second half, Sunderland came inches away from breaking the deadlock, as they struck the crossbar on two successive attempts.
First, Jones’ left-footed drive from just outside of the penalty area was pushed onto the bar by Joe Bursik, before Bailey Wright’s header cannoned off the crossbar from the resulting corner.
The crucial opening goal altered the whole complexion of the game, and it came in the form of Tom Hopper’s first goal in 13 appearances.
Scully cut the ball back to Jorge Grant, but his shot was blocked by the legs of Lee Burge. Appleton’s side recycled possession, and Grant’s cross to the back post was tucked under the goalkeeper by Hopper.
Sunderland tried to respond. McGeady tip-toed around the Lincoln defence, before his shot was parried away by the ‘keeper, and then Wyke knocked the ball back for McGeady, whose shot dipped just over the bar.
A second goal always looked likely, but it seemed as if it would come from Sunderland. However, a back-pass from Flanagan to Burge placed the Sunderland goalkeeper under pressure, with Johnson utilising his pace to charge Burge down. Johnson helped to deflect the ball back towards the Sunderland goal, as Burge could only watch it roll into the back of the net.
Sunderland desperately tried to get a goal back to reduce the deficit they’d take back to the SoL, and Grant Leadbitter almost found that – his long-range effort was deflected narrowly wide of the left post.
With six minutes of added time, Sunderland couldn’t find the goal back that they were searching for, and go to the second leg at the Stadium of Light with it all to do.
Full time - Lincoln City 2-0 Sunderland AFC
It’s one phrase that encapsulates the 90 minutes of football.
Even before kick-off, the scene was already set - Lincoln bought an emergency goalkeeper, with their first-choice, Alex Palmer, picking up a head injury in training; the legitimacy of it could perhaps be questioned.
Josef Bersik made some astonishing saves to deny the likes of Aiden McGeady and Jordan Jones, both of whom came within inches of giving Sunderland an important goal.
In truth, they needed a goal to make the second leg at the Stadium of Light meaningful as two defensive lapses cost the Black Cats. First, they were unable to clear their lines, and then the second goal doesn’t need any explaining.
Within the opening stages of the game, the Black Cats were looking shaky, as a result of the 3,145 Lincoln fans spurring their side on.
Gooch was picking up possession in defensive midfield, and immediately looking to launch the ball to Charlie Wyke, which simply wasn’t working.
Yet, Sunderland persisted, and the creative approach with the ball was looking like it could reap rewards.
Gooch tried his luck before half-time and both Jones and Wright had efforts that struck the crossbar, but there was always an anticipation of a Lincoln goal approaching, even if it took 51 minutes to come.
Sunderland just couldn’t clear their lines; there was a number of chances to clear the ball but Bridcutt drove and it dropped to Hopper to poke home.
There was a response from Lee Johnson’s men, but they just weren’t clinical enough, and a calamitous backline moment made the task even more difficult.
Within his post-match interviews, there was an air of discontent towards his side, but also a sense of hope that they are able to turn a two-goal deficit around.
As Johnson said, there is “no room for error” and the home crowd need to “buoy us” on. 10,000 is a huge amount of people and can create a great atmosphere – something which has been shown at stadiums such as Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge over the midweek round of Premier League fixtures.
Sunderland must use it to their advantage, and Lee Johnson will hope that an early goal will put Lincoln on the back foot and give Sunderland the impetus to attack the tie.
Johnson wanted the second leg home advantage – now he must utilise that to his advantage.
Remove all of the negativity, and play-off history and get behind the team in hope that Sunderland can produce a play-off masterclass.