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Sunderland v Luton Town: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final First Leg

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Talking Points: Sunderland grab a vital lead in their Championship playoff semi-final!

At a raucous Stadium of Light, the Lads battled back from 0-1 down against Luton and take a crucial lead into the second leg on Tuesday. What were the main stories from the game?

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Big game, big occasion, big performance

This was the first Championship playoff game at the Stadium of Light since that penalty shootout loss to Crystal Palace in 2003/2004 and on all fronts, it delivered and then some.

The atmosphere before and during the game was nothing short of electric, with a superb pre-match flag display and a capacity crowd amped up and hoping that the players would deliver, which they did in spades.

Despite Luton doing a reasonably effective job of smothering us in the first half and denying us the time and space to play our trademark enterprising football, we showed some real grit to stay in the game and eventually overturn the one goal deficit.

Considering that we only had one orthodox defender in the starting eleven, combined with the relative lack of experience throughout the team, it was a remarkable performance and one that proved just how far we’ve come under Tony Mowbray and how strong the team spirit currently is.

From the calm and composed leadership shown by Alex Pritchard to the quality displayed by Jack Clarke, the players seized the moment and ensured that the dream of a Wembley return is very much alive.

Yes, it’s only half time in the tie, but taking a lead down to Kenilworth Road on Tuesday night could be a huge psychological boost for everyone.

Sunderland v Luton Town: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final First Leg Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Amad delivers once again

What else can you say about the Manchester United loanee that hasn’t already been said on countless occasions this season?

He just doesn’t score ordinary or easy goals; he only ever seems to score goals of the highest order and this was another occasion on which he delivered emphatically.

As he’s done so often, he stepped up with another moment of outrageous quality to bring us level, as his curling strike from a Pritchard layoff arrowed into the top corner, leaving Ethan Horvath helpless and the Stadium of Light crowd in raptures.

I really do believe that you can now make a case for Amad being the greatest loan signing in the club’s history, and it was fitting that his Wearside swan song was capped by another unforgettable goal.

Whatever his future holds, we should be grateful that for one season at least, we’ve been able to call on the mercurial talents of the Ivorian.

Sunderland v Luton Town: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final First Leg Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

Pierre Ekwah dominates proceedings once again

How fortunes can change, and how foolhardy it can be to write a player off after a handful of appearances.

After some nervy early performances and an error against Hull that ultimately cost us two points, Ekwah was dismissed in some quarters and labelled, ridiculously, as another Kristjaan Speakman failure in the transfer market.

Fast forward a matter of weeks, however, and the former West Ham midfielder is now establishing himself as a real fan favourite, and for good reason. Tony Mowbray has stuck by him and the results have been clear to see.

Ekwah was absolutely immense on Saturday, covering every blade of grass, keeping things ticking over and not letting the magnitude of the occasion get to him in the slightest. As we’ve seen on many occasions, he can play accurate passes at will, he relishes the physical side of the game, and his composure for such a young player is admirable.

We’ve been crying out for a strong, dominant midfielder for what feels like an eternity, and in Ekwah, it feels as though we’ve finally addressed a long standing area of weakness and possibly found the long-term replacement for Corry Evans in the process.

Sunderland v Luton Town: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final First Leg Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A makeshift red and white defence? No problem!

It’s to our immense credit that we made it into the playoffs in the first place, given the raft of injuries that we’ve been dealing with for so long, and Saturday’s starting eleven was both fascinating and slightly worrying at the same time.

However, that didn’t really factor in the sheer resilience that the Lads possess in abundance, and the likes of Lynden Gooch and Trai Hume in particular deserve immense credit for the way they dealt with a robust Luton team.

Any team stripped of the towering presence Danny Batth and Dan Ballard would struggle in the face of such a physical challenge, and the goal we conceded was perhaps slightly inevitable, but you have to give massive kudos to the players for the way they stood strong and refused to buckle.

It was also great to see Niall Huggins make his comeback from injury, and it’ll be interesting to see what kind of a role he plays in the second leg on Tuesday night. Right now, Mowbray needs as many options as possible, and Huggins’ return could be a real blessing.

Sunderland v Luton Town: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final First Leg Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

REPORT & PLAYER RATINGS!

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