Sunderland’s play-off hopes are very much in their own hands, after they cruised to a 5-1 victory over Cambridge United on the penultimate Saturday of the League One season.
In truth, Alex Neil’s side struggled to get out of second gear, as they completely dominated proceedings at the Stadium of Light: the game swining on a controversial red card to Lloyd Jones with only 12 minutes on the clock.
Ross Stewart returned to the scoresheet with a brace to put himself back on top of the League One scoring charts, while goals from Elliot Embleton, Nathan Broadhead and Danny Batth increased the Black Cats’ goal difference.
However, the five goals were fairly kind upon their Cambridgeshire opposition, with Alex Neil’s side controlling the contest with 28 shots, and 75% of the possession.
The win lifted the Wearsiders back into the League One play-off places, as they leapfrogged Plymouth, who were held to a one-all draw with Wigan, Sheffield Wednesday and Wycombe, with the latter claiming the three points in an important contest between the two at Adams Park.
Alex Neil made three changes to the side that played out a goalless draw against Plymouth Argyle on Easter Monday - the most worrying withdrawal from the starting 11 proving to be the omission of Dennis Cirkin – while on the positive side of things playmaker Alex Pritchard returned to the bench.
For all of the post-match talk that the game was ultimately changed upon the early red card, there were signs of what was to come early on in this contest.
Sunderland were keen to look for the ball over the top of the Cambridge defensive line, and the visitors looked extremely susceptible at the back.
So, when Bailey Wright floated a ball forward with around ten minutes on the clock and it eventually dropped to Ross Stewart, Jones was left with no other option but to wrestle the Sunderland striker to the floor inside of the penalty area, leading to a cool penalty into the bottom left corner by the Scotsman.
A major moment for the team and for Stewart, himself, with Neil admitting the striker’s fatigue, after a difficult, goal-less period.
The decision to dish out a red card took many by surprise, but it wasn’t a call that altered the course of the match dramatically.
Sunderland continued to turn up the tempo, and the Black Cats dominated. For large spells, the play was simply stunning, and their press was arguably the best so far during Neil’s reign.
It was all made to look so simple from the Black Cats – Alex Neil’s side were creating chance after chance as they looked to further unlock the door.
Roberts drew a simple save from goalkeeper Dimitar Mitov, before Embleton curled an effort around the right post. But, only moments later, the midfielder’s free-kick nestled magnificently under the crossbar, seemingly fooling Mitov.
The warning signs of a potential Cambridge comeback were heard loud and clear around the Stadium of Light only two minutes later, as rather surprisingly, the deficit was halved.
Alex Neil’s side switched off and allowed Harvey Knibbs to progress forward on the right-wing, before his cut-back wasn’t cleared and Paul Digby fired home.
However, any nerves of a Good Friday repeat were soon obliterated as Sunderland re-took a two-goal lead. Stewart’s second of the match, a superb volleyed finish from Gooch’s cross, restoring the two goal advantage.
The American was impressing on the right; his deliveries into the penalty area were simply brilliant, and he should have had his second assist of the match – but Broadhead’s glancing header was sent just wide of the left post.
Alex Neil’s side ended the first half completely dominant, and somehow weren’t four-one up, as Broadhead and Gooch’s headers in quick succession were kept out by Mitov, before Stewart sent his header wide of the post.
The match should have been sealed just after the half-time interval, as Stewart was sent in behind the Cambridge defence, but his effort was deflected wide by a trailing defender’s leg.
But, only moments later, the three points were sealed. Gooch’s superb cross into the penalty area was nodded home by Broadhead – a superb attacking move producing the greatest reward.
Cambridge continued to be pinned into their own half, and Sunderland were looking to add to their advantage, as Pritchard’s header from another Gooch cross bounced narrowly away from the bottom left corner.
There was no arguing Sunderland’s four-goal advantage when it came, as Danny Batth’s header from Patrick Roberts’ cross added the gloss to a simply superb performance from Alex Neil’s side.
It could have been more. Embleton’s volley fizzed narrowly wide of the left post, and headers from both Stewart and O’Nien’s were saved by Mitov, but it wasn’t to take anything away from a massive statement in the play-off battle.
A mammoth three points, and a massive step towards the play-offs, in a huge final week of the League One season.
However, in this emphatic victory, there were some causes for concern for Alex Neil. The early injury to Carl Winchester, in particular, combined with the short-term loss of Dennis Cirkin.
And, with an absolutely massive week ahead, it’s not the sort of news that Neil wanted.
Sunderland now head into Tuesday’s huge game with Rotherham hoping to replicate the form shown against the U’s. Of course, Alex Neil has publicly played down the importance of the contest in midweek, but in terms of the League One table and the permutations, words can’t describe how big it is.
For Rotherham, they can move one step ahead of MK Dons into sealing an automatic promotion spot heading into the final day next Saturday, whilst for Sunderland, they have the opportunity to effectively seal a play-off spot – and still keep a very small hope of automatic promotion alive.
We’ve reached the final week of the regular League One season, but get ready – Sunderland and Alex Neil are going to need you on Tuesday.