Sunderland claimed another massive three points in their quest for promotion in Sky Bet League One, as they just about managed to conquer bottom-of-the-table Crewe Alexandra on Saturday afternoon.
Two goals in the space of five minutes from substitute Dan Neil and Patrick Roberts added some spice to a fairly lacklustre affair at the Stadium of Light – one that was looking like it was dwindling towards another disappointing result.
For the most part, it was a frustrating performance for the Black Cats, as they struggled to create openings against a Crewe side that was happy to sit on a point.
The result cemented the club’s place in the League One play-off places, but oh how the scoreline could have been different on a different day against a different side.
After Tuesday night’s victory, in which the substitutes ultimately were pivotal, Alex Neil opted to start both Luke O’Nien and Jermain Defoe from the off, whilst the Sunderland head coach opted for the same setup that ended the midweek win.
The opening stages at the Stadium of Light were fairly bland, with the Black Cats showing glimpses of quality but failing to control the contest.
Too often, Sunderland opted for the long ball forward to Ross Stewart, and time and time again, it wasn’t working.
Alex Neil’s side did very little to test the Crewe goalkeeper in the opening 45, with the ‘keeper remaining untroubled: Winchester’s long-ball forward to Defoe dropped straight through to Dave Richards, and that proved to be the only time the keeper was made to work.
Crewe came into this one with only one win in their last 11 matches, and were more than happy to sit back and absorb the Sunderland pressure.
As the first half progressed, the home fans’ became frustrated, and despite creating little to nothing and Crewe could and probably should have added to the crowd’s discontent.
A long ball forward to Chris Long gave him a sight of goal, but it took too long to pull the trigger, and Bailey Wright was able to retrieve possession.
It was beginning to turn into a scrappy affair, just like Tuesday night, and when Sunderland registered their first meaningful effort – Stewart’s header drawing a simple save from Richards – it seemed as if Alex Neil’s side may have been getting into gear, but the ending to the first half largely reflected the whole first period - drab, frustrating and poor.
Booed off at half time, the Black Cats needed a response, but it didn’t come and David Artell’s side continued to look to exploit the home side’s fragilities.
On a different day, a better side would have made Sunderland pay, as time and time again, Crewe were gifted openings.
First, a defensive mix-up and poor passing allowed Long, again, to break through, but fired his effort high over the bar.
The home side didn’t heed the warning, and only moments later a long ball forward found Long, whose first-time effort drew a fairly comfortable save from Anthony Patterson.
The turning point in the contest? Alex Neil’s substitutions.
All three introductions added a different element into the Black Cats’ play, with Dan Neil adding more progressiveness into Sunderland’s midfield play, while Roberts and Dajaku both offering different attacking threats.
As the clock ticked down, the Black Cats were becoming more desperate, but it was a marvellous finish to open the scoring: Neil played a one-two with Stewart, before winning the ball back and curling it into the bottom right corner.
The goal sparked the game into life and, as Sunderland began to deploy the time wasting tactics Crewe had employed from the off, they were given major breathing-room as Patrick Roberts added a second.
Two January additions linked up as Jack Clarke fed Roberts, who side-footed the ball into the bottom right corner.
A massive three points. It’s that simple.
For the second time in a week, Sunderland have managed to grind out three points when they have not been at their best.
And, arguably, for the second match in a row, it’s the substitutions from Alex Neil that ultimately turned the match in the Black Cats’ favour.
Yet again, it’ll be the first 70 minutes that will dominate the conversation.
Yes, the three points were the more crucial, but with time ticking, the sooner performances and results combine, the better.
Result-wise, Sunderland are back on track; they’re unbeaten in their last five, but there’s still a lot of work to do.