Sunderland head into the final day of the Sky Bet League One season with lots left to play for, after a late Michael Ihiekwe own-goal salvaged a point for the Black Cats against a dominant Rotherham United at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday night.
It was a commanding display from Paul Warne’s side, who largely controlled the game, but weren’t able to extend their advantage after Ihiekwe netted for the Millers early on.
Alex Neil’s side were outplayed and outfought for one of the first times under his management, and struggled to find answers to the constant questions that Rotherham posed throughout the 90 minutes. But the late own goal means the play-offs are still in Sunderland’s hands heading into a dramatic last day.
Sheffield Wednesday’s victory over Fleetwood helped the Owls overtake the Black Cats in the play-off picture, but the point means that Neil’s side move a point ahead of both Plymouth and Wycombe, ahead of a dramatic, frantic and nerve-shredding final day of the season.
It was expected that Alex Neil would shift to a more cautious approach for this huge midweek clash, and so it proved. The omission of Elliot Embleton, who impressed against Cambridge at the weekend, was, however, surprising.
As too was the inclusion of Trai Hume – Neil’s only fit-and-available full-back – in the right wing-back role, while Callum Doyle was also handed a start alongside Wright and Batth.
The significance of the night ahead under the lights on Wearside meant that a fast start would be essential, and it was a rather frantic opening, as both sides attempted to stamp their game-plan onto proceedings.
Sunderland were eager to find the long ball to Ross Stewart and Nathan Broadhead, whilst Rotherham looked to keep possession and catch the Black Cats out with their quality and pace in the wide areas.
But, it was the away side that looked the more dangerous, and after Ben Wiles’ attempt was deflected wide, Rotherham were handed their first corner of the match. And they profited.
Dan Barlaser’s dangerous, but quite splendid, corner from the right was met by the head of Michael Ihiekwe, and guided it into the bottom corner. It was the Millers’ first away league goal since February 26th, and a big one, at that.
What followed was a rallying cry of home support from the stands, but yet, it was still the travelling Rotherham United fans that were louder in voice. Off the pitch and on it the team from South Yorkshire sought to dominate.
Jordi Osei-Tutu sent an effort inches wide of the left post after a clever run, before another Ihiekwe header was sent narrowly wide.
For too long, Rotherham had it all their own way. Sunderland were being sucked into their game-plan, forcing the Black Cats to go long on every occasion, and it was working perfectly to the Millers’ benefit.
When the home side did get the ball they looked as though they could hurt the visitors. Stewart sent a teasing ball across the face of goal towards the on-rushing Broadhead, only to be collected by Viktor Johansson in the Rotherham goal.
But, in truth, those moments were very few and far between, as Warne’s side went into the half-time interval with a relatively comfortable lead.
After the break, there needed to be a step-up from the Black Cats, and to a degree, there was. They were quickly looking more dangerous in the final third, with Lynden Gooch pushing further forward, and the American created a chance for Corry Evans, five minutes into the half, but the midfielder skied his effort.
But, from a Sunderland perspective, it was a frustrating watch, as for long periods, they were starved from possession, and did very little to trouble Johansson in the Rotherham net, when they did.
Meanwhile, at the other end, the chances were there for the away side, and the match probably should have been over and done with, as captain, Richard Wood, headed into the gloves of Anthony Patterson, before top scorer, Michael Smith, somehow fizzed an effort wide of the right post from close range.
The introduction of Pritchard, Clarke and Embleton for the Black Cats started to turn the flow of the match, as the home side, finally, began to make in-roads into the contest – Pritchard’s free-kick was whipped narrowly around the right post.
The match was looking like it was destined for Sunderland’s first defeat in 12, but with two minutes remaining a dangerous cross from Jack Clarke was nodded, off the underside of the crossbar and into the back of his own net, by Ihiekwe.
Another late and decisive moment for the Black Cats’ play-off push, and what a huge one it may prove to be.
Sunderland weren’t at their best – in fact, they were far from it. Too often, they were dragged into Rotherham’s match and struggled to escape.
For any potential play-off opponents watching on, the model on how to torment and disrupt Alex Neil’s side was loud and clear.
Some may call it lucky, some may describe it as partially deserved, but it’s another huge, huge point heading into an absolutely crucial final day of the season, as a trip to Morecambe awaits.
And, despite all of the talk of the points difference separating the four teams in the mix, it’s easy to forget that it’s still massively in Sunderland’s hands.
Three points are left to play for. Three points that will guarantee a play-off spot. Anything less, and the Black Cats will be left relying upon the failure of others.
Please Sunderland... do it the ‘easy’ way.