Sunderland survived a nervy and tense second half at the Stadium of Light to make it five home wins out of five in Sky Bet League One, with a 1-0 victory over Bolton Wanderers on Saturday afternoon.
Carl Winchester’s 17th-minute strike proved to be the difference between the two sides in a match during which Sunderland were bombarded with Bolton pressure and dominance, but the Trotters simply couldn’t find a way through.
Lee Johnson’s starting 11 saw two changes from the side that drew at Fleetwood in our last league outing. Lynden Gooch missed the match with an ankle injury that will also rule him out of Tuesday night’s clash with Cheltenham Town. Gooch’s place went to Alex Pritchard, who’s waited patiently on the bench all season. Pritchard lined up just behind Ross Stewart, with Elliot Embleton and Aiden McGeady in the wide positions. After missing the Fleetwood game through suspension, Tom Flanagan regained his spot in the centre of defence alongside Callum Doyle, with Bailey Wright dropping to the bench.
First Half Action
Pre-match, Lee Johnson warned that the clash with Bolton would be an exciting and nervy game, and in the early stages it proved to be just that, with Sunderland creating the first opening within the opening minute.
Ross Stewart’s header from Elliot Embleton’s cross drew a superb one-handed save from Sunderland Academy graduate Joel Dixon in the Bolton goal.
At the other end of the pitch, Gethin Jones’ low cross from inside of the penalty area was fizzed across the face of goal, but unfortunately for the travelling away support it drifted wide of the left post.
It always felt like a goal would come early and so it proved – and it was another brilliantly crafted move from the home side. Embleton picked out overlapping left-back Dennis Cirkin, who rolled a ball across the six-yard box for Carl Winchester, who side-footed it into the roof of the net.
First blood, Sunderland.
Bolton have adapted well to life back in League One and showed exactly why they are the third-highest scorers in the division – and their attacking flair and creativity was clearly portrayed after the opening goal.
First, Jones’ teasing cross was poked forward by the boot of Eoin Doyle, but the ball was flashed wide of the left post.
Then, Oladapo Afolayan’s right-footed shot was spilled by Ron-Thorben Hoffmann, before he produced a fantastic reflex save from the follow-up from Eoin Doyle to deny the away side.
After surviving the Bolton storm for a period of the half, Sunderland ended the first 45 in the same vein as they began, with Winchester’s right-footed cross being poked forward by Stewart, but his effort was spilled around the post by Dixon.
Half Time - Sunderland AFC 1-0 Bolton Wanderers
Second Half Action
It proved to be a second-half in which Bolton showed control at both ends of the pitch, but it was the home side, who created arguably the best opening of the 45, as Pritchard’s effort from McGeady’s cut-back was denied by the outstretched leg of Dixon.
Winchester was proving instrumental in the final third for the Black Cats, and his right-footed low drive was drilled narrowly wide of the left post.
Bolton looked creative and dangerous going forward, and they forced a period of pressure on a Sunderland backline that was slowly beginning to creak.
Josh Sheehan’s tantalising cross into the penalty area was sent forward by Eoin Doyle and his effort drew a superb save from Hoffmann – the feeling on the concourse was that the Trotters were inching closer to an equaliser.
Lee Johnson utilised three substitutions – one a “concussion substitution” – but it failed to over-throw the mounting pressure that Bolton were beginning to hold on the match.
Declan John was an absent figure during his loan spell at Sunderland but almost dealt a killer blow to his former club as his cross skimmed the heads of both Doyle and George Johnston before dropping wide.
Bolton’s best opportunity proved to come when Afolayan’s cross to the back post was volleyed only inches wide by Johnston again, in a move that proved to be the wake-up call for the Black Cats.
It saw the home side push more bodies forward and sustain more periods of possession in the final third, but Leon Dajaku squandered a key effort to put the game to bed, as he twisted and turned only a couple of yards out, but his shot was easily saved by Dixon.
Seven minutes of added time intensified the feeling of nerve and potential déjà-vu around the Stadium of Light, but it proved to be another home fixture that ended in three points.
Full Time - Sunderland AFC 1-0 Bolton Wanderers
At the full-time whistle, there was a sense of relief.
A sense of relief of a home clean sheet, a sense of relief at claiming three points and an overall sense of relief that Sunderland were able to hold on despite mounting away pressure.
Arguably, it was the toughest spell of pressure that the team has been under in the opening eight League One matches, and arguably, it was the toughest to combat.
It’s a credit to this set of players, who have learnt from the mistakes of last weekend, and it proved to be an afternoon where the Black Cats kept up the pace with Wigan Athletic.
Yes, there may have been minor errors that may have cost Sunderland on another day, but it’s these errors that will shape this group of players for the better.
They all combined to make it one of the most nerve-jangling matches of the season so far, but it’s games such as this from which you get the greatest and most pleasurable reward at the end.
Bolton applied pressure upon pressure onto the Sunderland backline – one that altered numerous times during the second half – but the Trotters were unable to convert their possession and pressure in the final third into goals.
Efforts from Johnston and Doyle went begging for the visitors in the second 45, while Hoffmann was kept busy in the middle of the first half, which was sandwiched between two optimistic periods of attack for the Black Cats.
Bolton manager, Ian Evatt, said after the game:
I’d like to start with how well we played.
The way we played, the way we passed and beat the press, the way we had a team like that pinned for long spells and long periods and the chances we created, on another day we win that game like we beat Ipswich.
In truth, he is correct, but it just shows how far Sunderland have come during their seasons within the third tier.
In the past, we’d have dropped points in a game like that, but the signs are that – Fleetwood aside – this side has turned a corner, and is transitioning into a team that can push to promotion.
Yes, we are only eight matches in, but it’s a good foundation to build on.
Lee Johnson will no doubt be pleased with how the team responded after last weekend’s heartbreaking 2-2 draw with Fleetwood at Highbury, and the challenges come thick and fast with Tuesday’s visit of Cheltenham and a trip to Portsmouth next Saturday.
Slowly and surely, this side is building up more and more confidence needed to hold onto one and two-goal advantages in the latter stages of matches, and Saturday’s clean sheet will stand the team in good stead heading into another big week.