Regular readers of my ‘Hot Takes’ articles may be aware that, for some time, I have been expressing a hope that Sunderland could build up some genuine momentum ahead of a potential playoff campaign.
In my opinion, it is absolutely crucial that, should we qualify for it, we head into the end-of-season shootout in good form, and not at the end of a league campaign that ultimately fizzled out, as was the case in 2019 and 2021.
With that in mind, this ruthless demolition of Cambridge was a clear sign that, under Alex Neil, we are becoming a team to respect, and maybe even to fear, as the season builds towards its conclusion. This was a game where the pressure was intense, given the fine margins that separate the playoff contenders, but Sunderland took it in their stride with consummate ease.
As he has done many times in recent games, Neil opted for a plethora of changes in personnel for this game, with Danny Batth returning in defence, and Patrick Roberts and Lynden Gooch restored to the starting eleven.
For once, Neil’s team selection felt like a peripheral issue, because the emphasis was on victory above all else, and his pragmatic ethos of adjusting the team to suit the opposition was displayed once again.
The big question was, after the laboured performance against Plymouth on Easter Monday, could Sunderland summon the energy to see off a team who, seven days prior, had turned over Wigan Athletic in their own backyard?
The answer was emphatic.
From the first minute on Saturday, Sunderland ripped into the visitors with the kind of ferocity that we have seen fleetingly this season, but not often enough, and rarely when the pressure has been ramped up.
With Elliot Embleton orchestrating affairs from midfield, Ross Stewart dominating up front, and Corry Evans anchoring things with impressive authority, we were at it from the first minute, and if the players were feeling the pressure, not a single one of them showed it.
In essence, we combined the attacking flair that was often the hallmark of Lee Johnson’s tenure with the ruthlessness and solidity that Neil has instilled, and it all came together to devastating effect.
Sunderland’s opening goal, awarded after a foul on Ross Stewart, which was then followed by a coolly-taken penalty from the Scot, gave us the perfect start, and put Cambridge onto the back foot as Lloyd Jones saw red. At that stage, we were faced with the usual dilemma of whether to pace ourselves or to push on, and fortunately, we chose the latter.
Embleton’s goal, which followed shortly thereafter, was either an outrageous slice of fortune or a piece of brilliance, depending on your point of view, but as the ball flew over a floundering Dimitar Mitov and into the net from an acute angle, nobody seemed to care. It was 2-0, and we had our opponents exactly where we wanted them.
Irritatingly, we conceded a sloppy goal shortly afterward, as slack marking allowed Paul Digby to flash a neat strike past Anthony Patterson, but the ghosts of Shrewsbury were not haunting us this time, and Stewart’s second goal, a sumptuous swivel and crisp finish, was a riposte of the highest class and sent us into the break in a commanding position.
Sunderland’s second half performance was equally impressive, as we continued to probe and move the ball slickly, whilst denying Cambridge any real openings. Overall, the standard of service into the box was much better, and some of the interplay was a joy to watch.
When Nathan Broadhead rose highest to nod home a cross from Gooch, any lingering nerves were finally eased, before Batth added the gloss with another header, this time from a Roberts cross. After so many close calls in recent games, there was no need for any last-minute heroics, merely a leisurely stroll towards full time, and three points that keep us at the very heart of the battle for the top six.
It was difficult to highlight standout performers from this game, because everyone in red and white acquitted themselves superbly, but special praise must be reserved for Gooch and Embleton.
Sunderland’s American winger has endured a tough season, but this was a game in which he answered the doubters with aplomb, and Embleton chose the perfect occasion to cast himself as orchestrator-in-chief, utilising his full range of passing and offering more proof that he can deliver when called upon.
It was also heartening to see Callum Doyle make a winning return, and this was the ideal game for him to remind everyone that, at eighteen, he is gifted with precocious talent and scary potential. Alex Pritchard’s return was also timely, and it is encouraging to see our squad starting to reach full strength at this crucial stage of the season.
Tomorrow night, we bring down the curtain on this season’s home league schedule against Rotherham.
If we can summon a similar performance to Saturday, there is no doubt that we can avenge the 5-1 thrashing we suffered last October, and ensure that our destiny remains within our control ahead of the trip to Morecambe. The players know they are capable, and there is no reason to think they cannot deliver again.