It was billed as the derby which isn’t a derby, but the truth is, the atmosphere around the ground pre-match told a different story. It’s just not Newcastle, but then again nothing is.
What happened on the pitch over the course of the 90 minutes was anything but the traditional cagey derby game; this was a vibrant performance from a Sunderland side that dominated for almost the entire match. Add to that a superb atmosphere, and you have a great advert for any player who we might want to attract either in this window or the summer. The fact 4,000 more fans were at this match compared to our last victory over Boro in the Premier League in 2008 shows this is a club firmly on the up.
It was also a chance to right the more recent wrongs of the previous meeting between the two sides. Shorn of Ross Stewart in the warm up, and preparation out the window, our defeat at the Riverside was one to forget.
There were two changes from the defeat to Swansea, Danny Batth coming in for the suspended Luke O’Nien, and Aji Alese replacing Lynden Gooch, who requires a scan on a hip flexor issue, whatever that is. However, despite the changes, this felt like a defence with real balance.
Mowbray’s suggestion at the press conference we would be down to the bare bones was more than a touch of mind games; rumours were rife that Ballard was being sent for a scan, but he lined up alongside Batth.
Boro meanwhile had their own injury issues, chiefly with Carrick saying Darragh Lenihan wouldn’t make the game – which turned out to be a lie, as he started the game at the heart of their defence.
From the off, Sunderland got at Middlesbrough. What is really refreshing to see as the season has progressed is how quickly our passing game clicks. Straight away partnerships were established all over the pitch. The trio of Hume, Amad and Roberts the one which caused Boro the biggest problems, with the three combining beautifully down the right.
The decision to play a high line by Carrick was baffling; surely he was aware of the potential consequences of doing so, as Sunderland have exposed this tactic to devastating effect on a number of previous occasions.
Sunderland really should have been ahead with nine minutes on the clock. Zack Steffen’s woeful clearance went straight to Amad, who took a couple of touches, then fired just wide when one on one. Previously we had been critical of the Ivorian for failing to get a shot off, but on this occasion, he had plenty of time to pick his spot.
It was the withdrawal of Corry Evans a couple of minutes later that gave real cause for concern. The question of how we would perform in is absence, what sort of hole he would leave – and crucially, who would fill it. The answer today was Edouard Michut, and boy did he take his chance. He slotted in seamlessly alongside Dan Neil, the pair of them making the midfield tick. They should take great credit for producing mature performances you would have expected from players with 300 games under their belt.
As the half progressed, the chances kept coming. Stewart blazed over from six yards, had another disallowed and with the final act of the half bought a good save from Steffen from the edge of the area. Amad meanwhile had a couple of good openings, but couldn’t get his shots away. In all, it was an almost completely dominant half for Sunderland, and yet another example of how this side is more than a match for any team in this division.
The worry of course was that we had not taken advantage – and could have been out of sight by the break. However, Carrick now had the chance to alter things and stem wave after wave of Sunderland attack.
There was absolutely no need to worry. Just over a week after Sunderland fell victim to one of the worst refereeing performances in living memory, we would benefit from a sending off and a penalty.
The ball was clipped through by Amad, and the race was on between Stewart and Dael Fry. It always looked like Rosscoe was going to win it, and from my angle (right behind them) you could clearly see the Boro man pulling him back. Now you might say that Stewart’s decision to go down just as he entered the penalty area was a cynical move, I would say it was pure coincidence. Being honest, it probably wasn’t a penalty, but it absolutely was a red card.
Nevertheless, despite a Steffen save, Stewart stuck away the rebound for his 10th goal of the season.
From that moment on, Sunderland were never going to lose this one. The next 10 minutes saw wave after wave of attack, and the crowd smelled blood. Tony Mowbray’s men played a game of relentless possession with the intention of choking the life out of Boro.
To be fair, our opponents battled hard, but that’s all you could say they did. Strangely, Sunderland were probably more dominant in the first half, and though Carrick argued the red card changed the game, there’s no doubt that, unlike Swansea, it didn’t. We would have won this won regardless such was the complete dominance against a Middlesbrough side who had perhaps travelled up the A19 a little too pumped up.
The second and decisive goal arrived with 10 minutes left. A beautiful exchange between Amad and Roberts set the former slaloming towards goal. A turn this way, then that and bang, bottom corner. It was a goal of top quality and another reminder if we needed it that the Man Utd loanee is easily Premier League quality. We must make the most of him while we can – with the only hope of getting him back is if we go up once again. Even then, it would be a stretch.
The remainder of the game was played out at a pace that you might call leisurely.
Boro knew the game was up, and we had them exactly where we wanted them. The only thing of note was a potential foul by Bailey Wright on Akpom which could have resulted in a penalty – but the referee didn’t give it.
Isn’t it nice to benefit from these sorts of things?
Man of the Match: A real tough one, as there were a number of individual performances which would have been MOTM-worthy in other games. It’s a toss up between Amad and Dan Neil, who is showing the sort of progression and development that leaves me seriously excited. Special mention too for his turn in our box to get away from his marker, and start off another attack. However, the Ivorian is an absolute pleasure to watch, and his goal was brilliantly taken, so I’ll give it to him.