Sunderland gain three massive points on Saturday afternoon in the Sky Bet League One play-off race as they beat eighth-placed Oxford United 2-1 at the Kassam Stadium. It was far from the perfect performance from the Black Cats, but it was effective.
Oxford had dominated proceedings for large parts of the game but, through a combination of superb goalkeeping from Anthony Patterson and wasteful finishing from the home side, Karl Robinson’s side saw their play-off hopes suffer a massive blow.
Corry Evans had placed the Black Cats in front in the first half before Elliott Moore put Oxford on level terms, but a superb 89th-minute winner from Elliot Embleton sealed the win for the Lads.
The victory has placed Sunderland in a strong position heading into their final five matches, as all of Saturday’s results between second and tenth went in their favour. Alex Neil’s side have moved back into the play-off places, and are now level on points with Sheffield Wednesday, after the Owls’ one-one draw with Bolton.
Neil made three changes from the side that produced a dramatic one-nil victory over Gillingham last weekend, as the match-winner, Nathan Broadhead, returned to the starting 11, whilst Lynden Gooch and Jay Matete replaced Danny Batth and Luke O’Nien. It represented a change in system as the Sunderland Head Coach returned to a makeshift back-three.
The away side’s wide attacking approach led to an open start at the Kassam, which they have made a fortress over recent months. Before Sunderland arrived they had only suffered one defeat on home turf since the turn of the year and merely three all season in the league, and Karl Robinson’s side started this contest well.
Prolific striker Mark Sykes’ early effort was tipped around the post by Patterson after some good build-up play by Matty Taylor. But Sunderland have fared well against the league’s top eight this campaign and, only moments later, Broadhead’s weak shot from Stewart’s cut-back was cleared off the line by Luke McNally.
The home side continued to press forward, and in doing so they were finding space in behind the Sunderland wing-backs; Cameron Brannagan’s cross-field pass found Sykes in behind on the right but sent his effort narrowly over the bar.
Oxford were starting to dominate possession, but you always felt like part of Sunderland’s game plan was to attack on the break in numbers and the opening goal came from just that. After Clarke broke forward with pace, the Spurs-loanee won a free-kick in a dangerous area.
From the resulting free-kick, the Black Cats found their reward. The set-piece deflected against the wall and dropped for Matete who sent the ball back into the penalty area, and after a scramble, Evans coolly poking it into the bottom left corner. A crucial opener within a crucial play-off six-pointer.
There was always going to be an Oxford reaction, but the home faithful had to wait before witnessing a response from their side, as Nathan Holland fired over from close range.
The U’s midfield three began to dominate the contest as they looked to up the tempo, but it was a simple set-piece move that found the equaliser. Billy Bodin’s free-kick from the left was met by the head of Elliott Moore, who rose above Bailey Wright and nodded past a helpless Anthony Patterson.
Sunderland were starting to struggle; too often their passing was loose and, all in all, it allowed their opponents to start to build momentum, as Sykes’ low drive drew a routine save for Patterson, but the half-time break couldn’t come soon enough for the away side, and when it came, it was greeted with a sigh of relief.
Alex Neil’s half-time team-talk, and substitution of Roberts for O’Nien arguably steadied the Sunderland ship, but Oxford still looked a threat in the forward areas and the Black Cats struggled to convert build-up play into anything troubling for Jack Stevens.
Matete’s low effort was arrowed straight into the goalkeeper’s gloves before, only moments after, McNally drove forward for Oxford- untroubled and with space - but fired a shot narrowly wide of Sunderland’s the left post.
The visitors were sloppy in possession, and the home side were becoming more threatening and dangerous. As the match became more stretched somehow the U’s didn’t go ahead; Ciaron Brown’s header from only a couple of yards out was denied by a magnificent save from Patterson, before Bodin’s free-kick struck the top of the crossbar.
As the clock ticked down, Oxford were piling on the pressure, as Sunderland were becoming looser, giving away cheap free-kicks and losing possession.
Neil then tinkered with his side’s setup, by moving to a 4-2-3-1 formation with the introduction of Danny Batth and Elliot Embleton and, on the counter-attack, the latter produced what may prove to be a key moment in Sunderland’s season.
A beautiful move started through a brilliant run from Jay Matete, an O’Nien lay-off, a simple pass from Ross Stewart to Embleton, and the substitute side-footed the ball into the bottom right corner.
From the restart, Stewart should have sealed the three points as an Oxford mistake allowed the striker a clear opportunity to run through on goal, but the Scotsman was unable to convert - allowing Stevens to palm his effort around the right post.
It may have been a rued chance, if Billy Bodin converted his long-range effort, but thankfully it span around the left post, and Sunderland secured a massive, perhaps gigantic, maybe titanic, three points.
Sunderland take over...— Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) April 9, 2022
Enjoy your evening, #SAFC fans
Last weekend’s win against Gillingham was a massive three points, but in terms of the League One play-off race, this one was of another order again.
By and large, yes, the win may cover up some of Sunderland’s problems - they were poor in possession at times, and again, they couldn’t turn neat build-up play into clear-cut chances.
Oxford provided the Black Cats with a kind of challenge they haven’t experienced so far this season, but the fact that Alex Neil’s side has navigated this obstacle is a massive confidence boost and onn a day where every side in the play-off battle dropped points, our three points feels decisive.
This definitely won’t be the last turning point in this pulsating League One season, but this one certainly feels like a massive step toward the playoffs. Sunderland, with this latest victory, have given renewed hope to supporters that promotion is still on the cards.