After a late January shopping spree which saw Romaine Mundle and Callum Styles join Leo Hjelde at the Stadium of Light, the focus immediately shifted to the test posed by Michael Carrick’s side.
Sunday lunchtime’s Tees-Wear matchup saw Michael Beale’s fluorescent adolescents heading to the Riverside Stadium in search of only our fourth win in Middlesbrough in almost seventy years.
Aside from the debuting Hjelde, who was given a starting berth at left back, the side remained unchanged from the one that overcame Stoke City at the Stadium of Light one week prior. Middlesbrough, meanwhile, were coming off the back of a 6-1 humbling at the hands of Mauricio Pochettino’s Chelsea in the League Cup semi-final.
With the top four looking increasingly like a closed shop and eleven points separating fourth and fifth, the chasing pack that includes both Sunderland and Middlesbrough were seeking to cement their playoff aspirations.
This meant a win for either side would be a serious statement of intent and one that could be used as a launchpad to build a run for the remaining three months of the campaign.
Kicking off at a sold-out Riverside, the latest meeting between the two clubs certainly had the feel of a more meaningful affair, and we started the brighter of the two sides, dominating possession and holding our own territorially.
While the ever-threatening Sam Greenwood was forever seeking to play off the shoulders of Dan Ballard and Hjelde, Anthony Patterson’s positional sense meant any through balls were quickly dealt with, until a rebound fell to Finn Azaz, who blasted over from eighteen yards.
Following that let off, Jack Clarke and Abdoullah Ba began to go through the gears down the flanks, successfully unlocking avenues that enabled them to get to the byline.
After a neat bit of interplay between Jobe and Clarke resulted in Ba squandering a chance that looked easier to score, we’d well and truly established our supremacy and with both teams passing up golden opportunities to break the deadlock, we headed into the break all square.
Coming out for the second half, the consensus among Sunderland fans was simple: more of the same.
With a little more cutting edge and potency in front of goal, the game was very much there for the taking. Unfortunately, the Sunderland side that came out after the break was reminiscent of the side that seemingly played within themselves in the second half against Ipswich a few weeks earlier.
Lacking any kind of rhythm, control or composure, especially in midfield, we allowed Middlesbrough the momentum and impetus they’d previously lacked. It was painfully obvious that we were crying out for changes, with Jobe and Burstow in particular failing to make any sort of impact.
With the hosts growing in confidence, there was a stark lack of activity in the dugout, and on the hour mark, the inevitable occurred as Marcus Forss took the ball down from a free kick before smashing it past a helpless Patterson to put Middlesbrough 1-0 up.
On second viewing, the free kick that led to their opener appeared to have been wrongly awarded, but Beale’s indecision when it came to making substitutions resulted in a predictable and arguably avoidable outcome.
When the fourth official’s board was finally held aloft, Patrick Roberts and Nazariy Rusyn entered the fray, replacing Ba and Burstow, and we began to reimpose ourselves on the game, as Clarke dragged us kicking and screaming in search of a late equaliser.
Rusyn’s hunger and desire to chase anything and everything eventually paid dividends, when a Clarke pass found him in acres of space. The Ukrainian took it first time, somehow sneaking it past Tom Glover in the home goal to draw us level.
With seven minutes to play, an invaluable three points seemed possible as the tide turned. Unfortunately, despite our late resurgence, the game ended honours even.
Although a point is perhaps what we deserved, with better game management in the first twenty minutes of the second half and Ba holding his nerve, we might’ve left Teesside with all three points.
Four points from the last two games is a solid return and it affords Michael Beale some breathing space after a testing few weeks.
With the upcoming game against Plymouth representing another potential banana skin, it’s crucial that Beale and his staff make the required changes, with Jobe in dire need of a rest and Rusyn rewarded with a start.
As was demonstrated last season, we’re very much a ‘form team’ and if Beale can get us firing before the run in, we have every chance of securing a top six spot.
In other news, we can only hope that Dan Ballard’s shoulder injury isn’t as bad as it looked, although we have a more than capable replacement in Jenson Seelt.