NEVER mind Christmas cheer, there was delirium for almost 2,000 Sunderland fans at St Mary’s yesterday.
While the three points against basement boys Reading almost a fortnight ago was a pivotal result for Sunderland in taking them out of the relegation zone, the victory in the damp on the south coast held just as much significance for Martin O’Neill’s men.
Suddenly, Sunderland’s fortunes look much rosier.
The four-point buffer with the relegation zone provides the Black Cats with some breathing space and the modest target of a point per game by the time they enter FA Cup action in early January is now an achievable one.
Arguably more importantly, the pressure has been eased ahead of gruelling encounters against Manchester City, Spurs and Liverpool.
O’Neill will disagree, but anything from the next three games will be considered a bonus. Yet at the least, Sunderland don’t head into them under imperative pressure to get a victory.
The Sunderland boss oversaw a classic away performance from his side yesterday, against a Southampton side who hadn’t lost at home since October.
Sunderland paid the price for sluggish starts in three of their previous four games, yet they were alert from the first whistle.
Less than 20 seconds after it, to be precise, after Kelvin Davis produced an uncharacteristically magnificent save to deny Stephane Sessegnon.
Southampton had a go after that, without particularly hurting the Black Cats.
Sunderland threw bodies in the way and centre-halves Carlos Cuellar and the magnificent John O’Shea were able to intercept any crosses into the area.
As the first half wore on, it became an increasingly scrappy encounter marred by the conditions, with both sets of players struggling to bring the ball under control and produce any continuity with their passing.
But when the game’s one genuine clear-cut opportunity was created, it fell to the ideal candidate.
As he had done seven times previously this season, Steven Fletcher kept his composure – not fretting over whether Stephane Sessegnon meant to pass or simply mis-hit his shot – and calmly swept it past Davis.
Fletcher becomes a more and more precious commodity with every goal he scores.
Sunderland don’t provide him with a wealth of opportunities, but when the chances arrive, the Scotland international barely breaks sweat.
The goal on the stroke of half-time was a significant blow to Southampton.
It took the hosts a good 15 minutes of the second half to respond and it was the Black Cats who actually looked far more threatening in that period.
Sunderland’s failure to add a second and create some breathing space could feasibly have come back to haunt them.
But Simon Mignolet’s goal was never genuinely under threat after the break.
A collective determination to thwart the Saints, characterised by a diving block from Fraizer Campbell on the edge of the area with five minutes to go, left Sunderland’s keeper without a save to make.
Again it was the central defensive duo who stole the accolades for that, subduing the lethal Rickie Lambert to such an extent that the Scouse striker never had a sniff.
Sunderland still have plenty to do to permanently erase their relegation worries, but this was a massive step for them.
The game was perhaps a “must-not-lose” rather than a “must-win” but by emerging victories, those Sunderland supporters who ventured to Hampshire could have a very merry trip home.
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