A massive blow, but yet so many positives to take.
A 98th minute equaliser to Wycombe at Adams Park on Saturday afternoon meant the Lads ultimately dropped two points in the League One promotion battle in a six-goal thriller.
Ross Stewart’s 93rd minute goal, and his second (arguably third) of the match, looked like the away side would be travelling back north with the three points, but Joe Jacobson’s last-gasp goal meant that the points were shared.
However, on a day where Lee Johnson fielded threadbare side, a point would have arguably been taken by many supporters pre-match, but the fact that a win was only minutes away makes the feeling even more gutting.
The COVID-19 disruption in the ranks filled the pre-match headlines in the build up; a total of six new cases over the last week had placed the game on a knife edge.
Hoffmann and Burge both tested positive, with Anthony Patterson returning from his loan at Notts County to start in between the sticks. Leon Dajaku was another case at the club, and forced a revamp in Lee Johnson’s tactical setup, with Carl Winchester and Dennis Cirkin both returning to the starting XI.
In the opening exchanges, their COVID issues weren’t apparent. They held lots of possession and moved the ball extremely well - something which led to the opening goal only four minutes in. Embleton swept the ball across to Stewart, who fed Cirkin, before turning into the penalty area to nod the full-back’s cross past Stockdale, courtesy of the underside of the crossbar.
It began a hectic and chaotic first half, as Wycombe utilised their physical threat and direct gameplan to their advantage and pushed for the equaliser. Scowen’s low cross was poked goalwards by Sam Vokes, but forced a superb save from Anthony Patterson.
The Chairboys were beginning to build some pressure, with Obita’s close-range effort being blocked by Tom Flanagan, but only moments later, they were level. Anis Mehmeti’s low shot from outside of the penalty area drifted into the bottom left corner to get Gareth Ainsworth’s side back on level terms.
It was imperative that Sunderland didn’t get drawn into the hosts’ long-ball scheme, but were finding it difficult to keep possession, with the Albanian, Mehmeti, proving a thorn in their side. His right-footed low drive dropped into the gloves of the Sunderland goalkeeper, before his shot was dragged wide after McCleary’s knock-down.
Wycombe were beginning to dominate proceedings, and with 36 minutes on the clock, they controversially found their reward. McCleary’s corner wasn’t dealt with, and was ultimately prodded home by Sam Vokes, despite Hanlan’s efforts to block Patterson on the goalline.
Sunderland needed a response, and only three minutes after, a response was what was proved, in a stunning move. Embleton’s low teasing cross was poked past Stockdale by Stewart, after an incisive darting run across his marker, to send the sides into the half-time interval level.
After the break, Sunderland were, no doubt, on top, and Wycombe were open in their defensive areas, and we looked to exploit the space provided.
They found themselves in behind three times within the opening 10 minutes inside of the second half; first, Evans’ one-on-one attempt was guided straight at the Wycombe goalkeeper. After Pritchard’s clever pass in behind found Embleton, but the latter’s touch proved too heavy. Lastly, the Chairboys had their experienced defender, Joe Jacobson, to thank for keeping them on level terms, as he produced a last-ditch tackle to deny Lynden Gooch.
Only moments later, Jacobson, somehow, produced a remarkable clearance to deny the the away side from taking a three-two lead. Pritchard’s long-range effort wasn’t dealt with by David Stockdale, and Ross Stewart’s follow-up header was acrobatically cleared off the line by Jacobson.
The match was slowly turning into a very open contest, and the link-up between Embleton and Pritchard was proving decisive in Sunderland’s attacking threat, as Embleton’s curling effort collided with the bar, as Lee Johnson’s side began to step up the ante.
A lengthy stoppage for the serious injury to Corry Evans was not what Sunderland wanted, as their injury list grows longer, and just as they were beginning to create some pressure in this contest.
After that break, they kept up the tempo, with Winchester’s ferocious shot being beaten away by Stockdale, before Pritchard’s follow-up effort was blocked.
Sunderland looked the most destined to net the next goal, and three minutes into the nine additional, the league’s top goalscorer scored what looked like the winner. A clinical counter-attacking move produced the greatest reward, as Gooch broke forward, before it was slipped through to Ross Stewart, who poked the ball past Stockdale and eventually rolled over the line.
However, stoppage time has been conventionally Wycombe’s forte as the season has progressed, and Sunderland should have known what to expect, but combined with poor defending, victory was denied at the very death.
Yet again, Sunderland were unable to deal with a corner, as Chris Forino’s header was blocked on the line by Anthony Patterson, and Joe Jacobson was able to poke home from close-range, and the points were shared in a six-goal thriller.
But, there were still many positives to take for Lee Johnson and his backroom staff. The fact that they were able to field a strong starting XI was arguably the biggest positive, with Sunderland’s COVID-19 crisis and their injury worries.
Sunderland should have possibly put the game to bed early on in the second half: they created chance upon chance upon chance, but Wycombe defended extremely well in stages.
Ross Stewart seems to be getting better, game by game. His clinical finishing in the penalty area was close to arguably the best in the Championship, and combine that with his play off the ball, he’s becoming the perfect striker.
That was just one of the positives, but on the other hand, there was the huge negative of the devastating blow at the end.
Sunderland may have started the year with an enthralling 3-3 draw against Wycombe, in a match where they probably should have taken all three points, but with all of the circumstances leading into the match, it’s arguably another positive result on their promotion journey.