If ever there was a game to show the progression that this side has made throughout the course of the season, this was it. 7 months ago, just 4 games into the season Sunderland frankly capitulated at the hands of Plymouth down at Home Park, yet last night they strolled to another easy win, continuing their excellent run of form of late.
Not only was there a marked difference in the performance, the team is remarkably different to that which played down at Plymouth and even to that which took on Crewe just 3 days previously. Julio replaced Thornton to make his first start since returning from injury whilst Stephen Elliott came in for the out of form Bridges up front. However, although it was an improved team, the effect wasn’t felt immediately from the start.
With this game being of great importance to both teams, admittedly for vastly different reasons, the opening exchanges were slow and nervous. Although they had a lot of the possession and were able to control the pace of the game, the Lads failed to carve out any real chances in the first half an hour with Plymouth, arguably, looking the more creative. Nevertheless, just after this half hour mark, out of the blue and after several poor free kicks, Steven Caldwell of all people found himself some space on the left wing, enabling him to whip in the first good Sunderland cross of the match, placing the ball perfectly onto the head of Dean Whitehead who finished easily. After this, in contrast to recent form, Sunderland pressed on in search of more goals and were rewarded for their efforts when, five minutes before half time, another good cross, this time from scorer turned provider, Whitehead, found Arca free in the six yard box, allowing him to slot the ball easily past the Plymouth ‘keeper. Seemingly, this was not enough as Sunderland, obviously spurred on by these goals looked bright and put further pressure on Plymouth. This pressure told deep into injury time. Stewart picked up the ball in the box and was tripped, trying to turn past Coughlin. Although this was primarily ignored by the referee the linesman clearly spotted it and awarded the penalty, which was effortlessly slotted home by Stewart.
Although there was this spell of great Sunderland pressure towards the end of the first half, the second began much in the same way as the start of the first. Plymouth, once again, came out fighting and made it hard for Sunderland to create anything worth noting. The introduction of Lawrence and Thornton, at the expense of Whitehead and Whitley did little to increase the creativity of a Sunderland team that were already well on their way to victory, with Plymouth, again, looking the more likely to score. Still, in the 70th minute, once more arguably against the run of play, Caldwell found himself on the end of another dangerous cross, this time from Lawrence, and headed home to finally ease Sunderland into an unassailable lead. From then on, the result was a foregone conclusion but this didn’t stop Plymouth scoring a consolation goal with a couple of minutes to go through Scott Taylor. Stark reward for the many Plymouth fans whose misery was compounded minutes later as Thornton burst through the Plymouth defence before firing past the ‘keeper to seal another breathtaking win. A win which, like Saturday’s, now seems hugely important after more good wins for Wigan and Ipswich.
Man of the Match: Dean Whitehead