More frustration, more rueing of missed opportunities, and possibly more questions than answers about this team’s direction of travel.
They were the overriding emotions at the end of a game during which we showed plenty of promise, but ultimately ended in frustration, as we allowed a host of chances to slip by en-route to a 0-0 draw against Charlton.
After this stalemate, I now find myself longing for the days when games against the Addicks, and the accompanying nerves, are a thing of the past, because they are a team who seem to hold us in something of a vice grip.
Ilic, Mendonca, Bauer, Wembley 1998 and 2019, and to the list, you can add the name of George Dobson, with whom Alex Pritchard tangled in the second half, and walked off the field looking less than happy and hopefully not seriously injured, despite rolling his ankle.
The spectre of the team from The Valley continues to linger, and in the context of this season, this might prove to be another costly result.
A week ago, we were basking in the afterglow of a superb victory over Wigan in their own backyard. That result represented a great chance to give our playoff aspirations some genuine credibility, to lay down a marker over the remaining eleven games, and for Alex Neil to get the bandwagon rolling at a higher speed as he tries to salvage something from what has been a turbulent season for all concerned.
Sadly, it didn’t quite work out that way, and now the league table looks even more perilous from a Sunderland perspective.
With recent results not favouring us, the pressure on the upcoming league games is now even greater, and our margin for error is diminishing. If Neil is able to coax a significant winning run out of his charges, he is going to have to do it with ruthless efficiency, because we cannot allow too many more games, and points, to slip away.
Without a doubt, we can certainly do it, and secure a place in that all-important top six come May, but in the grandest of Sunderland traditions, the final ten games promise to be a true test of nerve. One day, we might find the magic formula and make life easier for ourselves, but then again, where would the excitement be if that was to happen?
What made this result so deflating is that, over the course of the ninety minutes, Sunderland’s performance was largely impressive, and had we demonstrated the required ruthlessness in front of goal, a comprehensive victory certainly wouldn’t have flattered us.
During the first half, we showed a composure that has often been lacking away from the Stadium of Light this season, with a performance filled with positive intent and plenty of front-foot football. There was a little more attacking spark than we showed against Wigan, but the steel and organisation that defined that performance was there as well.
The returning Nathan Broadhead, pitched into the starting XI in what felt like a calculated gamble, was superb, with his movement and awareness causing Charlton problems. Jay Matete was his usual powerhouse self in midfield, and Ross Stewart was also a handful, although he did spurn a number of excellent chances, including one or two headers that you might have expected him to bury, during the first forty-five minutes.
In essence, it was the classic case of ‘we did everything but score’, and despite an admittedly superb performance from Craig MacGillivray, who also tipped a threatening free kick from Pritchard over the bar, we went into the break seemingly well-placed to push on and turn the dominance into much-needed goals.
Sunderland’s momentum definitely ebbed away as the second half wore on, as the game became more niggly and fragmented, and the well-worn thought of, ’is it going to be one of those days?’ started to creep into the mind. Charlton did gain more of a foothold, but more good chances came and went for us, with a shot from Cirkin being cleared off the line by Chris Gunter, and another good save by MacGillivray from Stewart as the game eventually fizzled out.
Despite the immense frustration at full-time, there were certainly some positives to take away from our visit to South London.
Another clean sheet, helped by another composed & accomplished performance from Arbenit Xhemajli, was encouraging, and it was heartening to see Dennis Cirkin looking so rejuvenated after a torrid time for him.
Broadhead’s return was also a huge relief, and with Jermain Defoe’s homecoming currently not panning out as many hoped it would, the Everton loanee certainly looks capable of resuming his partnership with Stewart that worked so well earlier in the season.
As the Neil era starts to take shape, there is definitely a foundation on which to build, and the next step is to get the attack firing with regularity, something that, as we saw earlier in the season, we certainly have the ability to do.
Fleetwood at the Stadium of Light tomorrow is now a game of high stakes. Teams around us in the table are starting to make moves, and we cannot afford to drop off the pace. ‘Doing it the hard way’ is very much part of everyday Sunderland-related discussion these days, and the road back to the Championship now looks harder than ever.