Sunderland returned to winning ways on Saturday afternoon as they registered their first victory of 2022 with a hard-fought one-nil win over Portsmouth in front of over 32,000 fans at the Stadium of Light.
Elliot Embleton netted the only goal of the contest with 40 minutes on the clock, arguably against the run of play, in a first half that began with Portsmouth domination.
But, it was to Sunderland’s credit that they came through the early periods of Pompey pressure. Through the presence of authoritative bodies in Danny Batth and Corry Evans in both defence and midfield, Sunderland were soon able to implement their own game plan and claimed the three points - that, coupled with Wycombe’s 3-2 defeat to Morecambe, moved them back into the automatic promotion places.
All eyes were on Danny Batth pre-match as the defender made his debut in Sunderland colours, one of the only changes for Lee Johnson’s men. Corry Evans came back into the centre of midfield, with both Pritchard and Bailey Wright missing out due to injury.
However, despite all of Batth and Evans’ experience, they were unable to stop Portsmouth from dominating the opening exchanges. Marcus Harness proved to be Pompey’s danger source; committing bodies and winning set-pieces, but it was their lack of conversion of those opportunities into real chances that kept the scores level early on.
But, most of Portsmouth’s pressure that they held in the opening 25 minutes relied on Sunderland’s shakiness and lack of confidence and an attacking threat, alongside that.
Marcus Harness had the first golden opportunity for Danny Cowley’s side, but he lashed his effort over the bar from a promising area after a controversial denial of a clearance from Thorben Hoffmann.
Portsmouth continued to find space in the wide areas, and continued to apply pressure onto the Sunderland backline, but were unable to convert those into clear-cut chances.
Ronan Curtis tried, but his flick from a corner-kick routine was cleared on the line by Lynden Gooch, whilst defender Sean Raggett also tried his chances, but resulted in firing an effort wide of the post.
The home side lost the key midfield battles in the centre of the park, but as the home faithful began to grow in confidence, it started to show onto the pitch.
Lee Johnson’s side stepped up their pressing game, and in that, they reaped the rewards.
From Ronan Curtis’ loose pass, Elliot Embleton was away, but opted to take the shot himself, instead of freeing Dan Neil for a simpler effort, and only tested the gloves of Gavin Bazunu.
This was significantly better from the Black Cats, and yet again, their pressure opened up a new avenue of attack.
This time it was Raggett who was dispossessed, but Leon Dajaku’s effort from the corner of the penalty area curled narrowly around the right post - but five minutes before the interval, the hosts found the ultimate reward.
Again, it was Dajaku at the heart of the interception, as he stole the ball from Hayden Carter, and set Ross Stewart on his way. Unlike Dajaku previous and Embleton even further before that, he chose to feed in his teammate - this time it was Embleton - with the midfielder sweeping the ball into the bottom right corner.
Determined to increase their advantage, it was the home side who continued in the second half within a similar vein.
Dan Neil went close, as he narrowly hooked his effort wide of the right post before Embleton tested Bazunu further with a well-struck volley, but it was beginning to turn into a scrappy end to proceedings in what was a carefully and well-managed second half from the hosts.
But, the end wasn’t without stress for the home fans. Portsmouth pushed, and threw bodies forward, creating chances, yet only scarcely, and it was credit to the Black Cats the authority that they maintained upon the match.
In the latter stages of the game, Michael Jacobs’ effort proved to be a comfortable save from Hoffmann, before George Hirst’s header looped inches over the crossbar as the relief at the full-time whistle was optimised, Sunderland returning to winning ways.
But, after three matches without a win to kickstart the new year, three points was always the desired end-product, no matter the route to achieving them.
On Saturday, Sunderland were not at their best for large parts of the match. In the early stages, they allowed Portsmouth to dictate the play, but when they managed to get into their stride, and implement their own attacking game, their quality showed.
However, in recognising that Sunderland weren’t at their best, it must be taken into consideration that Lee Johnson is still without a number of his major recruits.
The promising signs in midweek that Luke O’Nien and Aiden McGeady were both back on the grass added to the optimism on Wearside, but there’s still a long way to go in their own development back.
After weeks of squad inconsistency and poor results, Sunderland are finally back into their stride of victories and back into the top two, but there’s a heck of a lot of work still remaining.