Sunderland were left hanging on at the DW Stadium today, but a crucial 3-2 victory over Wigan Athletic sees them rise to 11th in the table, nine points clear of the relegation zone. Craig Gardner's penalty cancelled out David Vaughan's early own goal, before a Steven Fletcher brace ensured Angelo Henriquez's late header counted for nought.
Continuing their penchant for giving teams a head start, Sunderland promptly conceded before even five minutes had passed at the DW Stadium.
With the home side given too much time and space on the left, Jean Beausejour found himself in behind Craig Gardner. His resulting cross didn't find a man, but in his haste to cut out the ball in, David Vaughan bundled it into his own net, gifting the Latics an early lead. It was a cavalcade of defending errors from the Black Cats - exactly the sort Martin O'Neill has bemoaned in the past month or so.
Thankfully, Sunderland didn't wilt in the face of adversity. Buoyed by an almost 5,000-strong away following, the Black Cats pressed high up the field, harrying Wigan's midfield James' - McCarthy and McArthur - and putting pressure on Roberto Martinez's back three.
Much of this was made possible by the debutant, Alfred N'Diaye. Moving away from 4-4-1-1, O'Neill opted for a 4-5-1 formation, with Stephane Sessegnon out wide, Seb Larsson and Vaughan as more attacking central midfielders, and N'Diaye the anchor. As a result, both Sessegnon and Adam Johnson were noticeably further forward on the wings.
Indeed, just two minutes after the opener, N'Diaye should have levelled things up. A Seb Larsson freekick found its way to the Frenchman and, from all of four yards, he headed over the bar. Three minutes later, from another Larsson set-piece, John O'Shea nodded wide.
Undeterred, the visitors kept up their pressure and were rewarded with their first penalty of the season on the sixteen minute mark. From another Larsson freekick, James McCarthy batted the ball away with an arm, and Craig Gardner was on hand to emphatically dispatch the resulting spot kick.
Three minutes later, Sunderland took the lead. N'Diaye, impressing on his debut, found space to drive into down the left before whipping in an inch perfect cross. Steven Fletcher's resulting header was well parried by Ali Al-Habsi, but the Wigan stopper could do nothing to stop the Sunderland striker thundering home the rebound.
Having hassled the lead away from their hosts, O'Neill's men settled themselves, with N'Diaye and Vaughan key men in stopping any potential home attacks from gathering too much momentum.
After the madness of the opening twenty minutes, the next twenty went by with little to shout about.
Then, with five minutes of the half remaining, Fletcher struck again. And how. Flicking the ball onto Adam Johnson, the winger managed to lay the ball back off to the striker, who promptly thudded the ball first time into the top corner, with Al-Habsi able only to stand and gawp. It was, in actual fact, an almost exact replica of David Vaughan's strike in the same fixture last year.
After the break, the tone for the next forty-five minutes was soon set. Few teams could continue the relentless pressing game Sunderland had employed in the opening half, and the visitors reverted to a more direct counter-attacking game, allowing their hosts a wealth of possession.
Though Wigan controlled much of the ball, it was Sunderland who went closest to adding another. Breaking with speed, Seb Larsson's effort five minutes into the second half whistled past the far post. Two minutes later, N'Diaye sprayed the ball wide to Fletcher before continuing into the box and sending the ball wide from a resulting cross; how refreshing it is to see red and white midfielders venture into the opposing penalty area.
But, from there, Sunderland's good use of the ball ceased. With legs fading, passes went awry in a manner they hadn't previously, and the home side gradually pushed the Black Cats deeper and deeper into their half. On the hour mark, both Fletcher and Larsson were called into timely blocks.
It was frustrating to watch, but, in truth, O'Neill's tactics continued to work. Shaun Maloney was very bright for the Latics but, for all their possession, they were continually snuffed out by Sunderland's backline - or by Mignolet's fine reaction save from Maloney.
Around 70 minutes, Sessegnon had a chance to seal it. Finding himself one-on-one, the Beninese stammered, taking the ball too far, eventually getting crowded out without getting a shot away. Sessegnon is undoubtedly a talented player, but his efforts in front of goal are nothing short of embarrassing at times.
Sure enough, the home side scored soon after. Substitute Angelo Henriquez found himself unmarked at the back post, and was left the easy task of heading home Maloney's cross with twelve minutes remaining.
From there, nerves jangled amongst the hearty away end. Sunderland continued to hoof the ball away, Wigan continued to fire efforts in on goal. There were plenty of close shaves but, thankfully, the Black Cats held on for a crucial three points.
That puts Sunderland into 11th in the league, on twenty-eight points, a full nine points ahead of the relegation zone. Perhaps now, given that the gap to 5th is also nine points, the Black Cats can begin to focus on those above them in the table.
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