Seven games left. A league table that is perilously tight, and a playoff race that seems certain to go right down to the final weeks, and possibly minutes of the season.
As Sunderland were left to reflect on a bittersweet afternoon at Sincil Bank, during which several players shone and we often played some lively, positive football, the only fact that really mattered was that, through a mixture of wastefulness & a sliver of misfortune, we allowed two precious points to slide away from us.
Since his arrival at the club, Alex Neil has wasted no time in placing the emphasis on results rather than aesthetics, but this was a classic example of the other side of the coin, where a team ticks every box except for the most important one: capitalising on chances created and ensuring that you don’t leave the field wondering about what might have been.
After turning in one of our worst performances of the season and being soundly beaten by Lincoln when they came to the SOL, this was a chance to put that memory to bed and keep ourselves ahead of the chasing pack.
Instead, it turned into an echo of the 0-0 against Charlton, a result you might file under ‘decent away point’ if we were only midway through the season, but at this stage, felt like another missed opportunity.
Pre-match, the standout point was the omission of Jay Matete from the starting XI, as Dan Neil was brought back into to partner Corry Evans, and to say it was baffling would be an understatement. Matete would surely have been the perfect foil for Dan Neil in the middle of the park, having shown some impressive qualities during his short time at the club so far, but evidently, the boss saw things differently.
How Sunderland failed to score in the first half is a question that Alex Neil may well ponder for some time, as he continues to grapple with the balance between defensive solidity & attacking prowess. There is no doubt that the standard of performance, overall, was higher than in recent matches, but finding the right balance is not easy, with so little time left.
With a three-man central defence looking solid, and Patrick Roberts and Jack Clarke forming what looked like an exciting attacking trio either side of Ross Stewart, the first forty-five minutes could’ve seen us essentially out of sight, were it not for a glaring lack of composure at crucial moments.
There was much to admire in terms of build-up, as the likes of Dennis Cirkin were given license to push forward and stretch the home team, but, as was the case when we visited The Valley, the killer touch was missing.
The impressive Jack Clarke, in particular, spurned two or three glorious chances, as the Lincoln goal was somehow not breached, and Patrick Roberts almost prodded home the opener from a Clarke cross as we hammered on the door. Chances also came and went for Luke O’Nien and Ross Stewart, but to no avail, as we headed for the interval at 0-0.
The second half followed largely the same pattern as the first, as we continued to probe & play with purpose, but without managing to convert it into a lead. Lincoln seldom threatened themselves, but Anthony Patterson showed plenty of alertness to produce a superb save from a Liam Cullen header, having been relatively untroubled beforehand.
The near-miss theme of the afternoon was encapsulated by a stunning save that Jordan Wright was able to pull off, as he dived full-length to prevent a Stewart header from nestling in the bottom corner as the game headed towards its conclusion, which had been preceded by a Jermain Defoe shot that went wide after a lovely pass from Roberts.
These were chances that really seemed to sum up our afternoon: close, but not quite close enough, and as the final whistle blew, there was a sense of relief that the teams around us hadn’t upheld their end of the bargain, leaving us in 6th place at the close of play.
There were certainly some positives to take away from this game, despite the fact that it ended in a stalemate.
Roberts and Clarke are certainly showing their worth following their January arrivals, and could well be first-choice selections for the remaining games; Anthony Patterson is looking like an increasingly secure presence in goal, and it was good to see Callum Doyle get a run-out, albeit in the briefest of cameos towards the end.
With no game next weekend, we now find ourselves in a state of limbo ahead of Gillingham’s visit to Wearside on April 2nd.
At the moment, it looks like one from three between ourselves, Sheffield Wednesday, and Wycombe who are vying for that fourth playoff spot, and the pressure on the remaining fixtures, particularly at home, is going to be huge.
Let’s hope that our new-found resilience can hold steady, because we will certainly need every ounce of it when we resume our league campaign after a weekend off.