In what was a most satisfying Saturday afternoon for Sunderland and their supporters at the Stadium of Light, the Black Cats beat Spurs 3-1 in a spectacular game of football. It would have been a night to celebrate for the players and manager alike, yet the games leading protagonist surely harboured mixed emotions.
The afternoon was always going to be – at least somewhat – about Darren Bent, who had parted company with Tottenham not exactly on the best of terms. Within two minutes of the kick-off the striker bagged the goal he was looking for and celebrated with a rather telling gesture directed towards an ever-so-slightly bemused away end. Within half an hour of play he had a second when a stonewall penalty was awarded to the Wearsiders for Kyle Walker’s handball after Heurelho Gomes parried Malbranque’s shot. Up stepped Sunderland’s leading goal scorer to double their lead and his tally for the day – if he thought at that point that his day could not get any better, then he was indeed correct.
The home side was awarded a second penalty when Fraizer Campbell was clumsily felled inside the area and there was only going to be one taker. Gomes guessed correctly that Bent would this time shoot to his opposite left hand side and for the first time in the afternoon gave the Tottenham fans something to cheer about. Early in the second-half Sunderland were awarded a third penalty. Bent must have thought twice about taking it, but in the end stood up, opted for his conventional side to the right of the keeper and Gomes again matched the striker’s intentions, saving a second spot kick and denying Sunderland’s number 11 the hat-trick he must have thought was in the bag. As he went off late in the second-half he would surely have felt have felt mixed emotions, but in truth it was his goals that won the game for the Black Cats.
Being two goals to the good before missing two penalties, having a goal controversially disallowed and then conceding, the home side did not give their fans an easy ride on Saturday but it was arguably their best performance under Bruce and he deserves credit for his team selection and substitutions. When the time inevitably came to introduce Kenwyne Jones to proceedings the easy decision would have been to haul Campbell off with Bent still on a hat-trick. Instead Bruce opted for what turned out to be a sage decision as by that late stage, Bent looked a spent force. Up front and then later on the right hand side, Campbell looked particularly sharp and caused havoc in the Spurs defensive line all afternoon. He remained on the pitch and it was partly due to his running that Jordan Henderson found space to direct a pinpoint cross from the right that Bolo Zenden volleyed into the roof of the net. It was probably the goal of the season at the Stadium of Light so far and the moment that finally put the game beyond the London team.
At the back Bruce opted for Anton Ferdinand at right-back, unable to call upon the ineligible Alan Hutton and despite a shaky start, Ferdinand had a convincing afternoon, mostly keeping Gareth Bale at bay and was unlucky to have a goal disallowed. Starting with young David Meyler in midfield instead of Lorik Cana was an unorthodox decision but one that ultimately paid off as Sunderland looked more comfortable on the ball, keeping possession in midfield more effectively than at any time this season. The Wearsiders had a notably young side out with Jordan Henderson, Cattermole and Meyler in midfield all aged 22 or under. The whole side bustled with energy throughout and the Londoners looked unable to cope with the Wearsiders’ midfield industry. Campbell, Malbranque and Bent had all of course spent time at White Hart Lane and all played with notable energy and intent. Bruce must find a way of harnessing this kind of attitude for every game particularly on the road but for Saturday’s match at least, it was perhaps a case of Harry Redknapp’s revolving door transfer policy coming back to haunt him.