Sunderland continued their scintillating start to the Sky Bet League One season, as they produced a 2-1 victory over second-placed Accrington Stanley at the Stadium of Light.
Carl Winchester’s second-half strike proved to be the winner in a game where Sunderland had to overcome one of their toughest challenges of the season so far.
Michael Nottingham’s header levelled proceedings towards the end of the first half after Dan Neil’s superb effort had given Black Cats an early lead. But, despite some nervy moments, Lee Johnson’s side held on for victory to continue their impressive start to the campaign.
Deadline day arrival Thorben Hoffmann made his debut in Sunderland colours in the only change from the 3-1 victory over Wycombe Wanderers before the international break.
There proved to be no place for fellow deadline-day signing, Leon Dajaku, within the matchday squad, with Aiden O’Brien – whose loan move to Doncaster fell through as the 11pm deadline came and went – also missing out.
Dan Neil continued to partner Luke O’Nien within the centre of midfield, while Ross Stewart was again the focal point for the Sunderland attack, in front of a supporting three that comprised captain, Aiden McGeady, Elliot Embleton and Lynden Gooch.
First Half Action
Sunderland dominated the early stages of the game and were finding space in the final third with Accrington Stanley’s high press – but that press from the visitors was also causing issues at the back for the home side. Sunderland couldn’t clear a Stanley set-piece, and Michael Nottingham’s volley looped just wide of the right post.
The Black Cats looked dangerous in the opening stages, and Dan Neil skipped past Sam Sherring before dinking the ball to the back post. The ball was slightly too high for the incoming Lynden Gooch, however, who headed over.
Sunderland stepped up a gear and deservedly found their reward. Gooch’s cross was nodded away by Nottingham, but only as far as Dennis Cirkin, 25 yards out. Cirkin – who was impressive throughout – cushioned a header to Dan Neil who shifted the ball onto his weaker left foot, and unleashed a shot past Accrington keeper James Trafford – on loan from Manchester City – who was left with no chance.
Lee Johnson’s side piled more pressure onto the opposition in what was looking like another impressive display – Carl Winchester’s left-footed drive from just over 20 yards arrowed narrowly wide of the left post.
However, Accrington got back on level terms as Sunderland struggled to deal with a set-piece from the visitors – Nottingham’s header from McConville’s corner beat Hoffmann on his Sunderland debut.
On his first start in a Sunderland shirt, the German had a couple of shaky moments, and a missed punch almost allowed Accrington to turn the game on its head – his defence coming to the rescue to maintain a level scoreline.
Half Time: Sunderland AFC 1-1 Accrington Stanley
Second Half Action
Lee Johnson’s side started the second half in positive style and looked to retake the lead. Aiden McGeady cut inside from the right-wing and struck a low left-footed shot that Trafford just managed to spill around the post of a corner.
Sunderland were looking the more likely to take the leade, and what proved to be the winning goal came from a well-worked fashion. Embleton fed the ball across to McGeady, who slipped it through for Winchester, whose shot was driven into the bottom left corner.
As the second half progressed, Accrington dominated possession in the final third, but Sunderland had the better of the opportunities. Ross Stewart had the best chance to kill off Stanley, but he opted to dribble the ball around Trafford, instead of lifting it over the goalkeeper.
Accrington have had a superb start to the League One season, and John Coleman felt his side should have come away with something from the Stadium of Light, as they failed to capitalise on Sunderland’s defensive fragilities.
Dion Charles robbed possession from Callum Doyle, before cutting the ball back to Colby Bishop, but his effort was nodded off the line by Cirkin.
The Black Cats failed to capitalise on their late flurry of chances. Embleton couldn’t hit the target after being threaded through by Dan Neil, as his effort was blocked by Dion Charles.
Accrington pushed more bodies forward within the final minutes of the match and floated cross after cross into the penalty area, but Sunderland were able to hold onto their fifth league win of the season and top of the table.
Full Time - Sunderland AFC 2-1 Accrington Stanley
Another week, another challenge passed by Lee Johnson and his men.
It always felt like it was going to be a different challenge for Sunderland to negotiate; a physical opponent with form, optimism and momentum on their side.
Yes, it may not have been the prettiest of wins, and yes, there may have been some shaky moments for both the Sunderland defence and debutant goalkeeper, but overall, it was a fifth League One victory of the campaign for the Black Cats.
The win continues the momentum built up prior to the international break in one of the toughest tests of the season so far.
Although Accrington haven’t played the more accomplished sides so far, with wins over Cambridge, Doncaster, Crewe and Shrewsbury, they showed just why they were in the top two heading into kick-off.
John Coleman believed that his side should have at least gained a point from the Stadium of Light, and in truth, if you read the stats, they had enough opportunities to get something from the game, but they just weren’t clinical enough.
The physical aspect of their game gave Sunderland food for thought. The referee issued seven yellow cards, and their pressure seemed to give the Black Cats’ ‘playing out from the back approach’ its first real test.
For the most part, it worked effectively and enhanced Sunderland’s attacking threat, but a more creative side may have capitalised on the inexperience and fragilities that the backline showed.
Now, it’s another week to prepare for a tough last two weeks of September, with matches against Wigan and Bolton on the horizon – after a trip to face Simon Grayson’s Fleetwood next weekend.
The Cod Army produced the result of their season so far with a shock against Rotherham United at the New York Stadium yesterday, and recent history shows a trip to Highbury is one we’ve tended to find difficult.
But, after five league wins out of six, there should be no reason why Sunderland shouldn’t be confident of claiming another three points in our quest for automatic promotion.