Sunderland’s unbeaten run has extended to six matches, but they were left to rue a dozen of glorious missed opportunities, as they only claimed a point against Michael Appleton’s Lincoln City in League One on Saturday afternoon.
On the surface, it was an impressive display from Alex Neil’s side, in particular the individual display from Patrick Roberts, and the away side largely dominated proceedings but failed to convert their chances.
Jack Clarke had four notable opportunities throughout the match, Corry Evans struck the post, whilst Defoe fired narrowly wide, but two consecutive goalless draws away from home, where they should have came away with all three on both occasions, means their play-off hopes have been put on hold, whilst the Black Cats narrowly remain within the top six.
For Sunderland, it was a starting 11 that boded two changes from last week’s two-nil victory over Crewe at the Stadium of Light. After netting the goals last weekend, Dan Neil and Patrick Roberts were both rewarded with starts at Sincil Bank, as Jay Matete and Jermain Defoe dropped out.
And for the Black Cats, it was the latter’s involvement, in the opening stages, that were proving key.
On the whole, it was a very lively opening from the Black Cats: they looked optimistic in their attacking approach, whilst controlling the match from the midfield areas.
Roberts’ attacking play was proving decisive in the difference between the two teams, as the forward continued where he left off against Crewe last week. A very direct approach from the play-maker aided the Black Cats’ impressive attacking qualities, but for all that danger, there was little to show for it.
Yes they pushed, and yes they threatened, and yes they were alive to any openings, but their ruthlessness evaded them at the important moments.
Dan Neil fired narrowly over the bar, after brilliant work from Roberts to tee up the midfielder, before Jack Clarke almost capitalised on an error from Brooke Norton-Cuffy, but curled his effort narrowly wide of the right post.
Alex Neil’s side were starting to dominate proceedings, but on the half-hour mark, another Lincoln mistake offered the Black Cats yet another opportunity, but after O’Nien dispossessed McGrandles, Clarke could only guide his shot around the post.
There proved to be little reward for the away side’s pressure in the first half, whilst in glimpses, the youth of wing-backs, Norton-Cuffy and Bramall was proving to be Lincoln’s attacking outlet, but little was produced.
As the half-time interval approached, the match was turning into a scrappy affair, but also more even, as the Imps began to find dangerous avenues through the Sunderland defence, as just before the break, Tom Hopper flicked the ball just wide of the post, after good work from John Marquis to find his fellow-striker on the left.
It was a similar start to the second half as the first, with Sunderland looking threatening and somehow weren’t one-up in the early stages of the half.
Brilliant skill from Roberts allowed Clarke time and space to pick his spot from outside of the area but he whipped his effort narrowly wide of the right post.
The Black Cats were in complete control, but there was little knowing this looking at the score-line, as they continued to leave Jordan Wright untroubled.
Clarke’s free-kick was inches away from Stewart at the back post, before Corry Evans missed a guilt-edge opportunity from only yards out, after Roberts’ cut-back found the midfielder, but he guided his effort against the left post.
How Sunderland weren’t one-up is simply indescribable, as Clarke missed yet another golden opportunity (this one probably the biggest of the lot), as he, impossibly, rolled the ball wide of the right post, after Roberts slotted it through for the Tottenham-loanee, when scoring felt within touching distance.
After a period with little ruthlessness in the final third, there felt only one option from the bench for Alex Neil, as Jermain Defoe was introduced, alongside Leon Dajaku, with Jack Clarke and Dan Neil being replaced.
And, within only moments of his arrival, the veteran striker almost had a significant touch. Picking the ball up outside of the area, Defoe turned, carried it forward, but fired narrowly wide of the left post.
Yet, the longer the match went on, the more you felt, as a Sunderland supporter, this would be one that went astray, and almost that concept nearly became a reality.
Through their own substitutions of Morgan Whittaker and Liam Cullen, Michael Appleton’s side, themselves, were looking more dangerous, and Patterson was forced into a pivotal save, as Cullen’s header from close-range forced a quick-fire reaction save from the Sunderland ‘keeper, who palmed the ball onto the crossbar.
But, largely, it was the Black Cats who controlled the final stages of the encounter. Evans’ volley from just outside of the penalty area was punched away by Jordan Wright, before the Lincoln goalkeeper was drawn into producing an impressive save to deny Ross Stewart’s header in the match’s stoppage time.
Yet, it was another disappointing result, despite the circumstance of the performance.
A key opportunity to distance themselves from Sheffield Wednesday and Wycombe, below them, has gone begging, but in stark contrast to last weekend, an impressive performance didn’t warrant three points.
Roberts impressed, Patterson produced when it mattered, and on the whole, Sunderland produced a great performance, but the lack of the three points means it’s a missed opportunity.
With Oxford, Sheffield Wednesday, and Wycombe dropping two points, a win would have solidified the Black Cats’ play-off spot, but Sunderland have built their foundations for the late-season play-off push; now it’s time to produce consistent results.