A thrilling, last-gasp victory followed by a frustrating and somewhat unsatisfying stalemate.
That was the story of Sunderland’s Easter double-header in a nutshell, as we pocketed four points from a possible six, extended our unbeaten run to ten games, and kept ourselves firmly in the play-off hunt with three matches left.
And yet, when the final whistle blew at Home Park on Monday, it was hard to escape a nagging sense that we had missed an opportunity to strengthen our promotion credentials even more.
Whereas Good Friday’s fixture against Shrewsbury was a tale of some excellent, enterprising play and another late winner, a stoic and well-drilled Plymouth proved too tough a nut to crack, as we turned in a performance that lacked conviction and was worryingly light on cohesion.
Did Friday’s game take too much out of us? Was the gap between the games not long enough to fully recharge the batteries? There was more than a hint of lethargy about our performance against Plymouth, and we didn’t play with the kind of conviction that is the hallmark of a team with genuine belief in themselves.
If you contrast this with Sheffield Wednesday’s convincing and efficient performance in their victory over MK Dons, for example, there was a noticeable difference, and that is often the difference at this stage of the season.
Nevertheless, the picture is not entirely negative, and it would be very churlish to turn up our noses at a point nabbed from a team who have shown impressive form for the majority of the season.
Elsewhere, Wycombe’s draw with AFC Wimbledon was a blessed relief, and the upshot is that we are still firmly in the running to secure a place in the end-of-season shootout, thanks to a top six picture that hangs tantalisingly in the balance.
With many of the teams in the upper reaches of the table scheduled to play each other, we still have control of our own destiny, provided that we can hold our nerve over the next two weeks. Resilience is a hallmark of Alex Neil’s Sunderland, and it is sure to be tested to the absolute maximum.
Now that the dust has settled and we have a chance to regroup ahead of the visit of Cambridge, what did these two games illustrate?
First and foremost, it is glaringly apparent that Alex Pritchard’s return to the team cannot come quickly enough. The diminutive playmaker was sorely missed on Monday, and his ability to make space, pick passes, and unlock a defence would’ve been a godsend in such a tight game.
Instead, our attacking play against Plymouth was too disjointed and nowhere near incisive enough. Time after time, we resorted to aimless long balls and hoofed passes that left Ross Stewart isolated and frustrated. Alongside him, Nathan Broadhead, so often the hero recently, seemed to be suffering from the same malaise.
During the last two games, we have also been provided with yet more evidence that Jack Clarke is simply too erratic and does not possess enough genuine football intelligence to be relied upon as a creative outlet.
On the ball, the Spurs loanee is as comfortable as anyone, but his inability to produce accurate crosses or killer passes is a source of immense frustration. His habit of over-complicating things and not releasing the ball at the right time cannot be overlooked, and surely his place will be under threat, despite Neil showing a good deal of trust in him.
Another concern is that, against Shrewsbury, we allowed the opposition to get a foothold in the game when there was seemingly no chance of them staging a revival. Game management is absolutely crucial, and any slackness is certain to be punished. A big lesson learned.
On the upside, Corry Evans has certainly been more authoritative of late, and has given off a much stronger aura of leadership than he had done previously, and Anthony Patterson is growing into his role as Neil’s first choice goalkeeper with every game he plays.
All things considered, this was a fairly positive weekend for Sunderland.
Granted, we did not take a giant stride towards our goal, but we did move that little bit closer to it. If we can ensure that victory is achieved against Cambridge on Saturday, where the result will doubtless be more important than the aesthetics of it, the four points we banked over a typically frenetic Easter may be even more priceless.