Sunderland will take a slender one-goal lead into Monday’s League One play-off semi-final second leg at Hillsborough, after Ross Stewart’s 45th-minute strike was enough to overcome Sheffield Wednesday in the first leg.
Stewart capitalised upon a defensive error from Wednesday’s Sam Hutchinson to net his 25th goal of the season, sending the Black Cats into the second leg with a half-time advantage.
It was a dominant and comfortable opening hour from Alex Neil’s side, who arguably could have stretched their lead – however, at full-time, the team were pleased to have kept hold of the win as Wednesday came close to an equaliser late on.
The Wearsiders travel to Hillsborough on Monday night knowing a clean sheet will be good enough to claim a place in the final on May 21st, to face either MK Dons or Wycombe.
With pre-match mind games from both camps, the team news was always going to raise a few eyebrows.
Despite keeping his cards very close to his chest regarding the fitness of Nathan Broadhead, Alex Neil was without the Everton-loanee and opted for a change in shape to a 4-2-3-1 structure, with the returning Dennis Cirkin dropping back into the left-back role.
Meanwhile, in the opposing dug-out, Darren Moore had been very cagey about the fitness of the club’s player-of-the-year, Barry Bannan, stating that he’d “wrapped him up in cotton wool all week”. Bannan started on Wearside, just behind the forward duo of Lee Gregory and Saido Berahino.
Yet despite all of the unpredictability in the starting line-ups, the first half followed a rather predictable fashion, with both teams content to sit on the ball, but the quality to unlock the opposition’s defence proving to elude both sides, as Roberts’ early effort drawing a comfortable save from Bailey Peacock-Farrell.
Sheffield Wednesday were more than happy to sit back and absorb the Sunderland pressure, and were keen to take the sting out of game air early on.
Liam Palmer, the Owls’ right wing-back, was a threat for the away side; his pace caused Cirkin a few problems, but was found wanting when it came to his end product – his cross missed both Berahino and Gregory in the centre.
Much of Wednesday’s game plan was to minimise the scoreline and play their football on the break, and as Sunderland began to up the tempo, the atmosphere inside the Stadium ramped up, too.
Gooch’s deflected cross was tipped over the bar by Peacock-Farrell, but the hosts were inching closer to their reward, and with the interval looming, the Black Cats struck.
Brilliant determination and pressing from Ross Stewart forced visiting defender, Sam Hutchinson, into a mammoth mistake that allowed the striker in behind. The Scotsman soon broke away, and despite hearts sinking as the original effort was denied by the Wednesday goalkeeper, they were immediately picked back up again, as Stewart poked home the rebound.
First blood, Sunderland.
At the time, the half-time interval was looking like it came at the wrong time for the Black Cats, but soon after the break, they continued their dominance and searched for a second.
Alex Pritchard was orchestrating affairs for the home side, and almost came close to adding a truly spectacular second: his curling, dipping effort was struck agonisingly against the crossbar.
Alex Neil’s side were turning up the heat in one of the most ferocious atmospheres that the Stadium of Light has witnessed in years, and came so, so close to doubling their lead, when Pritchard, again, looped an effort just over the bar.
Wednesday were looking like they were just hanging on, as Dennis Cirkin glanced a close-range header over the bar, before Patrick Roberts’ effort drifted past the left post.
Darren Moore began to ring the changes, and his side looked more authoritative on the counter as a result. Palmer had two successive efforts to level the tie, but couldn’t convert.
First, his header from the right was sent narrowly wide of the post, before another header from the wing-back needed an acrobatic clearance from Bailey Wright to deny the Wednesday man.
It did cause frustration for Alex Neil, his response clear with the reinforcements brought on in the form of Jay Matete and Elliot Embleton, seemingly to hold and maintain possession in the midfield areas, and in truth, it worked, to an extent.
Sunderland were able to move up the pitch more often, and almost capitalised from a second defensive error from the away side, as Peacock-Farrell’s loose pass was picked up by Stewart, but the striker could only fire narrowly wide of the left post.
And so, the constantly-swinging pendulum began to slow.
Sunderland were able to hold onto their precious one-goal lead, which they will take to Hillsborough on Monday night in another sold-out atmosphere.
The mission for Alex Neil’s side is so simple, yet so, so difficult: keep a clean sheet in Sheffield Wednesday’s backyard.
Only one team have come away from Hillsborough in the League One season with their clean sheet intact, but it’s something that’s within Alex Neil’s Sunderland’s DNA.
After all, they stopped Wigan from scoring at the DW in late February, and the same against Plymouth at Home Park on Easter Monday.
With a significantly improved defensive setup, the Black Cats’ chances of progressing to a Wembley final rise massively.
But, expect the kitchen sink, or any other household appliance available, to be thrown at Sunderland; whether it’s the first minute or the last.
90 minutes, minimum, lies in-between Sunderland and a return to Wembley, but another nail-biting, nerve-shredding one it’ll be.
Can you take another 90-minutes-plus of that again?
I know I can’t.