Sunderland were held to a goalless draw in the race for the Sky Bet League One play-offs at Home Park against Plymouth Argyle on Easter Monday.
In truth, it was a game between two sides eager not to lose the game, and little quality to separate the teams.
The game did have chances, and created plenty of nervy moments for both sets of fans, who packed out a sold-out Home Park, for Sunderland’s longest journey of the season.
The result in Devon, combined with Wycombe’s 1-1 draw with AFC Wimbledon, means that the ball is now in Sheffield Wednesday’s court, who could pull away with a win on Tuesday night over Crewe.
After Good Friday’s last-gasp victory over Shrewsbury Town, Corry Evans’ return to the starting 11 was expected. Luke O’Nien moved to left wing-back and Lynden Gooch dropped back to the bench.
For Plymouth, leading scorer Ryan Hardie returned after missing out for nearly a month with injury.
From the outset, it was clear it was going to be a nervy, tight encounter, with both teams’ game plans and formations almost cancelling each other out.
In the centre of the park, both sides were comfortable to sit on the ball, but the service to the attackers was largely minimal, and there was little end product.
In attack, Plymouth moved with speed and poise, predominantly through Steven Sessegnon who created the game’s first major chance of the game – his cut-back finding Niall Ennis, only for the striker’s effort to be sent straight into the gloves of Anthony Patterson.
As the first half progressed the home side began to find their feet, and they began to control the game through midfielders Danny Mayor and Panutche Camara.
Yet the more Plymouth pushed the more Sunderland created on the counter, Stewart was only inches away from finishing Embleton’s through ball. A better first touch from the Scot and Sunderland surely would have taken the lead.
The best chance of the first half, possibly even the whole 90 minutes, fell to head of Ryan Hardie, but after some fine play on the left, Conor Grant’s cross was nodded wide by the Argyle talisman.
Alex Neil’s half-time team talk had an immediate impact, and his side stepped up the tempo after the interval, dominating early proceedings.
Their most significant opportunity came after good play from Corry Evans to win a loose ball. Evans then set Broadhead on his way in behind, but the striker was ultimately denied by the leg of Cooper in the Plymouth goal, before Jack Clarke lashed the ball wide from the rebound.
It was the home side who came closest to breaking the deadlock, however, and possibly should have done when Grant side-footed his effort around the left post, despite having time and space to pick his spot.
And, in truth, it was the element of composure that was simply eluded from both teams’ performances – Sunderland, in particular, lacking the end-product in the final third.
Ross Stewart went close with 15 minutes left to play, but his long-distance effort curled narrowly wide of the left post in front of the 1,537 travelling Sunderland faithful.
The clock was ticking, but there was no sign of Sunderland’s late show this time. Instead it was the home side, who created the better chances towards the end, as Grant snatched his effort wide of the left post again, after some good work on the right by Sessegnon.
But, despite just over four minutes of injury time, there was little goalmouth excitement, instead it seemed both teams were happy with a point – and in the context of Sunderland’s season, it’s a point we’ll be pretty happy to take, rather than spending too much time ruing the two left behind.
On the day, there was little to separate the sides, and neither side really did enough to unlock their opposition’s defence, so a point was probably a fair result.
It only intensifies the League One play-off battle, as neither team has accelerated away from the rest. Wycombe’s draw opened the door for a gap to be created, but the points difference remains largely unchanged – and Darren Moore’s side in Sheffield are now firmly in the driving seat.
But, still, don’t let that make you more hesitant. There are only two regular match days left ing the Sky Bet League One season, plus games-in-hand, but in there are some absolutely huge affairs.
Wycombe and Sheffield Wednesday face off on Saturday afternoon, while Plymouth travel to Wigan and Rotherham host Oxford.
Being in the driving seat may appear to give you an advantage but nothing is decided yet –and for Sunderland, Saturday afternoon’s game against Cambridge looks to be season defining.