Sunderland bounced back after Tuesday’s 1-0 defeat to Burton Albion, with a 1-0 victory of their own over AFC Wimbledon back in front of almost 30,000 fans at the Stadium of Light in Sky Bet League One on Saturday afternoon.
A deflected strike from Carl Winchester proved to be the only difference between the two sides, in a match where Sunderland struggled to find a way past an outstanding AFC Wimbledon goalkeeper.
After Tuesday night’s first defeat of the season, Lee Johnson made two changes, which included the first league start in a Sunderland shirt for attacking midfielder Alex Pritchard. He replaced Dennis Cirkin within the Sunderland side, as Dan Neil was pushed back into the left-back role.
A late change involved a switch in goal, as Anthony Patterson replaced Lee Burge between the sticks, after Burge felt a niggle during the pre-match warm-ups. Elliot Embleton dropped into a more defensive role alongside Luke O’Nien in central midfield to accommodate Pritchard, as Aiden McGeady and Lynden Gooch both supported Ross Stewart from the flanks.
Alex Pritchard makes his first league start for the Lads today!— Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) August 21, 2021
First Half Action
Tuesday night saw Sunderland lack the cutting edge in attack, but on Saturday they looked ambitious, optimistic and incisive in their forward play, with an early effort from Lynden Gooch being rolled into the gloves of Nik Tzanev in the AFC Wimbledon goal.
However, Sunderland failed to apply constant pressure during periods of the first half, and became slightly complacent in midfield areas, with the away side’s best opening coming when Henry Lawrence’s cross was not dealt with by Dan Neil and eventually dropped to Ethan Chislett, whose effort curled narrowly around the right-hand post.
Apart from that, Patterson was left rather untroubled, as Tzanev was forced to do all of the work at the opposite end of the pitch, including a brilliant save just before the half an hour mark to deny Lynden Gooch’s left-footed effort.
It proved to be a frustrated ending to the first 45 at the Stadium of Light, as the Black Cats couldn’t turn their openings into goals in front of the home fans, with Gooch’s cross from the right finding Dan Neil, but his header was directed wide of the left post.
Half Time - Sunderland AFC 0-0 AFC Wimbledon
Second Half Action
Johnson’s side began the second half brightly and looked even more threatening, with Ross Stewart’s effort being beaten away by Tzanev, after being sent behind the AFC Wimbledon backline by Gooch.
Arguably the best opening came in front of the North Stand, as McGeady’s dinked-ball to the back post found both Gooch and Luke O’Nien and, as both of the Sunderland men challenged for the ball, it bounced frustratingly wide.
It was feeling like it was another case of déjà-vu for Sunderland, as their opportunities weren’t being taken in ruthless fashion from the hosts, with Embleton’s deflected effort unnerving the Wimbledon goalkeeper, who parried the ball over the bar.
When the goal finally came, it contained the slice of luck that Sunderland have been craving over the past two matches.
After McGeady’s corner was nodded away, Carl Winchester picked the ball up, and with urges to shoot from the home faithful, the stand-in right-back rifled a shot goalwards, with a huge deflection wrong-footing Tzanev and dropping into the bottom left corner.
Sunderland maintained their dominance after taking the lead, and looked increasingly more likely to add another goal, with a McGeady corner being missed by substitute Nathan Broadhead but falling at the feet of Callum Doyle, with his effort drawing a save from the Wimbledon ‘keeper.
As the clock ticked down, the Dons were always going to have some chances, and they proved to have two very good opportunities to snatch a point, as Anthony Hartigan’s corner was met by Ben Heneghan, but after his header was looped over Patterson, it was nodded off the line by substitute Dennis Cirkin.
Their final effort came late into stoppage time, as Ollie Palmer’s glancing header from Alex Woodyard’s cross was met by the palms of Patterson.
It proved to be a brilliant bounce-back from Lee Johnson’s side, as they claimed all three points.
Full Time - Sunderland AFC 1-0 AFC Wimbledon
After Tuesday’s first defeat of the season, the questions that dominated the post-match conversations were about what Sunderland’s response would be and how the this set of players would react to a game they really didn’t deserve to lose?
I was certain that it wouldn’t be an early-season implosion by the Black Cats, with the altered mentality that fans have already seen during the first couple of games, and this was another impressive display which warranted the three points.
As the match progressed, there was a feeling around the Stadium of Light that Lee Johnson’s side could be left to rue missed opportunities again, or be pegged back during the final stages of the contest but, in the end, they proved themselves able to secure the victory.
In truth, there was no doubt that Sunderland were by large degree the better team but, as was witnessed on Tuesday at the Pirelli, opportunities and possession within the final third means nothing if those chances aren’t taken.
The winning goal proved to be just the stroke of luck that they’ve needed over their past 180 minutes of football, as the deflection proved to be the only thing that was going to beat Tzanev, yet another goalkeeper that did well to keep Sunderland largely at bay.
It was a well-earned moment of recognition for Carl Winchester, who gave a marvellous display in the right-back role - his solid defensive performance combined with his attacking clinicalness and execution was a recipe for success against a Wimbledon side that just lacked their attacking outlets as the game went on.
As Sunderland move on, tougher tests are starting to appear into sight as both unbeaten Wycombe Wanderers and Sheffield Wednesday are their next two opponents in League One, with Championship opposition, Blackpool, next up in the second round of the Carabao Cup.
New additions Frederik Alves and Nathan Broadhead will most likely be given first starts for the club, but Tuesday may prove to be slightly too early for Niall Huggins. The aim in midweek will be to claim the scalp of a Championship side and, most importantly for Johnson, to allow new additions to catch-up with the rest of the squad in minutes under their belts.
For now though, Sunderland have overcome their first real hurdle of the season in bouncing back from defeat, but many more will come as the campaign progresses.