Lesser teams might have let their season implode, but Sunderland have bounced back from their uncharacteristically poor performance against Everton in the FA cup quarter-final replay with two points in two games against two of the Premier League’s top four.
Built on a solid foundation at the back, with Lee Cattermole and Gardner providing an extra line of protection just in front of the defence, Spurs, despite the attacking talent at their disposal, couldn’t find a way through. Gardner’s tackle on Gareth Bale in the 89th minute epitomised what was at face value a gritty Sunderland performance.
Most watching would have, like Bale’s boss Harry Redknapp, expected the Welshman go on and score as he did in a similar situation against West Brom but Gardner proved the measure of him with a stop which would have been a contender for Tackle of the Season if we gave the art of defending the plaudits it deserves.
Redknapp was of the opinion that Sunderland had set out with the sole intention of frustrating his side. Inevitably his opposite number Martin O’Neill disagreed and so did the stats. Sunderland had more shots on target (nine to eight) and more corners (11 to four) than Spurs.
If there was a criticism to be levelled at Sunderland it was that they didn’t make better use of the ball when they had possession. Niklas Bendtner was a weak link, often failing to keep up with play and forcing James McClean to cut back inside instead of firing in a cross when in advanced positions due to the lack of support. Furthermore, despite the fact McClean was often double, even triple-marked, Sunderland used the Irishman as their main attacking outlet all too often.
Fraizer Campbell, who missed the Spurs game through illness, should provide further attacking options on his return and surely in the summer O’Neill will look to supplement the creative talent he already has at his disposal if only to take some pressure off McClean.
The Stadium of Light is fast becoming a fortress. Since the turn of the year Sunderland have played three of the top four – Manchester City, Spurs and Arsenal – and only a Thierry Henry goal in second-half injury time has stopped them from taking points off all three – that was one of only two home defeats since O’Neill took charge.
The other was that Cup reverse against Everton and now, less than two weeks later, Sunderland have, as centre-half Michael Turner says, the chance to ‘set the record straight’ in their Easter Monday trip to Goodison Park. Yet it will be no easy task. Turner and his team mates have won one of their last six on the road while the Toffees have conceded just one goal in their last five home League games and are unbeaten in clubs’ last 17 meetings.
Far from being a distraction for Everton, the FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool could be a spur to players seeking to secure a place in that historic tie. Furthermore, Cattermole and Phil Bardsley, both so impressive against Spurs but both brought off through injury, are fitness doubts for Sunderland ahead of the trip.
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