Sunderland’s winless run is over, as the lads claimed a morale-boosting victory over Wigan Athletic at the DW Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
A brace of penalties from Ross Stewart and a second-minute header from Bailey Wright were the decisive moments in the 3-0 win for Alex Neil’s side – the first victory of his reign.
Although the Black Cats didn’t control the contest for the full 90 minutes, Sunderland showed defensive solidity and composure from the front to pick up a massive three points, moving them further into the League One play-off places.
After the midweek draw against Burton, Neil had signalled that Callum Doyle needed to be rested. Doyle’s performances had become more fatigued and complacent over recent weeks, and Neil opted to hand a debut to Arbenit Xhemajli. In the other change, Elliot Embleton replaced the veteran, Jermain Defoe, as the Sunderland head coach altered the system to a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Leam Richardson only opted for one change, as Gwion Edwards replaced Gavin Massey, but had a wealth of quality throughout their ranks, so the need for a fast start from the away side was essential.
And with just over a minute on the clock, Sunderland took the lead.
Pritchard’s early free-kick from the right was met by the diving Bailey Wright, who nodded the ball into the bottom left corner, and ‘keeper, Ben Amos, was left beaten.
It was an impressive immediate response from the home side, who dominated the possession tallies, but largely lacked any cutting edge.
When James McClean somehow fired just wide of the right post from Josh Magennis’ cut-back, Wigan were beginning to knock on the door, but did little to really push it open.
Within a new defensive duo of Wright and Xhemajli, Sunderland were, surprisingly, looking strong at the back, and in the forward areas, they were thriving.
In the final third, the Black Cats always looked dangerous, and the build-up to the second goal demonstrated their determination.
Ross Stewart chased a pass from Carl Winchester, but nipped ahead of centre-back, Curtis Tilt, and forced the referee to point to the spot.
The Sunderland striker confidently disposed of the spot-kick - sending Ben Amos the wrong way – and putting his side two goals to the good.
Despite being two goals down, the Latics did push towards the break, as they applied some pressure onto the Sunderland backline - McClean fizzed a dangerous low cross goalwards, but Will Keane failed to make decent contact and Anthony Patterson produced a simple save.
The half-time break came, arguably, at a good time for Alex Neil’s side – and they were cheered off by the travelling away support.
Immediately after the break, the away team should have put the game to bed.
Stewart fired the ball across the face of the goal, but was inches in front of Bailey Wright, before an unbalanced Alex Pritchard side-footed his shot narrowly around the right post.
Narrow margins were denying Sunderland from increasing their advantage, but despite possibly having opportunities to kill the game off, Wigan were still, very much, in the contest – and arguably, should have halved the deficit not long after.
The Latics produced a moment of quality as Will Keane slipped the ball through to Callum Lang, but the forward squandered a one-on-one effort, Patterson saving comfortably.
The clock was ticking for Leam Richardson’s side, and the Wigan manager chose the introduction of Stephen Humphrys and Gavin Massey – and slowly, the tide was beginning to turn.
An abundance of crosses were delivered into the penalty area, but all were successfully claimed by Patterson, before the only major moment coming when Tilt headed narrowly wide from McClean’s free-kick.
Despite all of Wigan’s pressure, Wright and Xhemajli began to create a defensive partnership at the heart of the backline, whilst offensively, the substitution of Jack Clarke added a different dimension to Sunderland’s attacking play.
His free-kick from just over 20 yards out seemed to strike the post – the referee pointed for a corner – before the Black Cats were handed a huge opportunity to seal the three points.
The whole of the DW Stadium was left muted as the referee pointed to the spot for a handball from Tendayi Darikwa, and Ross Stewart cooly rolled the ball into the bottom right corner.
Three points were heading back to the North East, and a massive (perhaps, gigantic) three points, at that.
Sunderland have now shown that they can compete against the best sides in League One, but their faltering season is down to their own inconsistency.
Wright and Xhemajli have, perhaps, begun to form a decent partnership, and their composure on and off the ball, and their defensive quality to defend Patterson’s goal, helped to keep a well-earned clean sheet. Going forward, Sunderland looked a different team to the one that struggled against MK Dons and Burton Albion last week.
Yes, there’s a long way to go, and this performance was far from perfect, but it’s the start, and hopefully, the start of a last-minute charge towards promotion.