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Sunderland v Doncaster Rovers - Sky Bet League One

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Hot Takes: This isn’t an unfamiliar situation, but it is extremely painful nevertheless

Victory against Cheltenham and the appointment of a new head coach should hopefully provide a boost in the short-term, but our season is now in real danger of drifting towards another sour ending. 

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

After the party comes the hangover - and this was without a doubt the coldest, most brutal hangover imaginable for Sunderland’s sorry squad of players, coaches and fans.

One week after a 6-0 rout at the hands of Bolton, Sunderland fell further behind League One’s pacesetters as we slipped to a narrow but equally galling defeat to the league’s bottom side.

That’s three valuable points lost, another dent in the squad’s already-battered confidence - and suddenly, automatic promotion is a fading aspiration as opposed to a genuinely achievable target.

Pre-match, the mood was rampantly upbeat after an eventful week.

Former goalscoring hero Jermain Defoe had rejoined the club, Jay Matete had been recruited from Fleetwood, and as the weekend drew nearer, speculation and rumours about a return to the Stadium of Light dugout for Roy Keane were reaching fever pitch.

Sunderland v Doncaster Rovers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The net result? 38,000 expectant fans packed into the stadium, and a pre-match buzz that was more pronounced than any for quite some time. Surely the players would give us a performance worthy of the occasion?

Sadly not.

As someone sagely noted on Twitter after the game finished, everything was great until the match kicked off - at which point, things went south almost as quickly as they had against Bolton.

With only one change made from the previous week’s starting eleven, it felt like interim coach Mike Dodds was giving the players a chance to atone for the Lancashire shambles - to show that they do have what it takes to respond to defeats, and that they were worthy of their places in the team.

That was fine in theory, but clearly the message was lost in translation, and the players didn’t deliver, because the first-half performance was nothing short of calamitous.

In contrast to Doncaster, who looked lively and well-organised, Sunderland were an absolute rabble. There was no real rhythm to our play, and, not for the first time recently, we lacked aggression and intensity to a criminal degree.

In essence, it was the polar opposite of the reverse fixture where we cruised past Doncaster without getting out of third gear, and in turn, they could barely string three successive passes together.

Sunderland v Doncaster Rovers - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

Once again, questions have to be asked about the mentality and body language of these players when the pressure increases. Last week, I wrote that you either rise to the challenge or you wilt when playing for this club - and once again it was the latter on Saturday.

The most damning criticism you could level at the players during the first half was that too many of them hid. They looked afraid to receive the ball, to try and take the game to Doncaster, and nobody was taking charge.

The visitors’ goals, from Reo Griffiths and Tommy Rowe, were well taken, but both could’ve been defended better - certainly for the opener, and the issue of defensive solidity was highlighted starkly for what felt like the umpteenth time this season.

In goal, the talented-but-erratic Thorben Hoffmann looked on edge all afternoon, and his defenders scarcely more at ease.

Danny Batth, for example, seems to have become a victim of the notorious ‘He made a great impression on his debut’ curse that has affected countless Sunderland players, because he has looked very shaky during his two subsequent outings. With our defensive options so lean at the moment, there is precious little time for him to become the solid presence he was for Stoke and Wolves.

Sunderland v Doncaster Rovers - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

As has been the case so often this season, Sunderland did up their game in the second half, and chances came as a result. A Ross Stewart header was clawed away when it looked goal-bound (over the line, in fact, depending on where you were sitting) and a curling shot from Elliot Embleton struck the post as we tried to overturn the deficit.

When Corry Evans bundled the ball home in the dying embers, it did give hope that maybe something could be salvaged, but why should it take a team to go 0-2 behind in order to spark them into life?

In any event, Evans’ goal provided false hope as Doncaster negotiated the final few minutes for a morale-boosting victory.

For me, only three of Sunderland’s players emerged from this shambolic defeat with any real credit: Alex Pritchard, who was always eager for the ball and seeking to make things happen; Jack Clarke, who showed some exciting flashes of skill when he entered the fray, and Matete, who did at least bring some more energy to our midfield, albeit at a stage when the game was slipping away.

Despite the emotional nature of his return, Defoe’s introduction, to an appropriately raucous reception, couldn’t provide the fairytale ending that everyone would’ve craved, but he is very short of match fitness, and at least he banked some vital minutes ahead of the games to come.

Sunderland v Doncaster Rovers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Recent weeks have hinted at it, and yesterday provided concrete proof. that many of Sunderland’s players are running on fumes at the moment.

Dan Neil and Callum Doyle have youth on their side, but they are looking perilously close to burnout right now, Elliot Embleton continues to drift in and out of matches, and Dennis Cirkin continues to look mysteriously off-colour, despite getting a steady run of games recently.

Can the new head coach help these lads to turn their form around? It is possible, but judging by the body language as they trudged off the pitch on Saturday, morale is sinking fast, and it is going to require some serious soul-searching in order to lift it again.

We now find ourselves in a horrible state of flux. Victory tomorrow night against Cheltenham (with plenty of changes to the team, no doubt) and the appointment of a new head coach should hopefully provide a boost in the short-term, but our season is now in real danger of drifting towards another sour ending.

It isn’t an unfamiliar situation, but it is extremely painful nevertheless.

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