Chris Young’s Sunderland big-match verdict: Instinct for goal emphasises change in Johnson’s form

Sunderland's Adam Johnson celebrates his goal against Stoke City.
Sunderland's Adam Johnson celebrates his goal against Stoke City.
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AMONG THE memorabilia on display at English football’s new £105million base at St George’s Park is a super-sized picture.

It shows a younger-looking Adam Johnson celebrating one of only two goals for his country; in a European Championship qualifier against Switzerland in September, 2010.

But since the interior design for the huge complex at Burton was being finalised, Johnson has fallen out of all reckoning on the England scene.

Even when Johnson spoke of his remaining World Cup hopes after his hat-trick at Fulham earlier this month, it looked more of a pipe-dream than a realistic possibility.

But after a sixth goal in six games last night, Johnson is enjoying his most consistent run of form since arriving at the Stadium of Light.

Suddenly, with Theo Walcott ruled out, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain only just back from injury and Ashley Young a shadow of his former self, Johnson is a firm contender for Brazil, providing this dramatic transformation of 2014 continues.

Even the FA’s own Twitter account were spreading the news of Johnson’s eighth goal of the campaign last night.

Johnson’s strike typified the change in the 26-year-old.

While everyone else was waiting to see what would stem from Fabio Borini’s skidding shot, Johnson gambled on Stoke keeper Asmir Begovic spilling it before keeping his cool and delicately tricking the ball over the line.

It was one of the few pieces of composure in an encounter which lived up to the billing of a nervy, error-ridden, relegation-threatened clash.

Sunderland began the game brightly, pressing the Potters high up the field, rather than the languid start from the previous league encounter at home against Southampton.

Seb Larsson and Jack Colback beavered around, hunting to regain possession, while Fabio Borini and Jozy Altidore both chased down the lost causes in the Stoke half.

Understandably, Gus Poyet’s men looked to feed Johnson at every opportunity and the former Middlesbrough man got beyond left-back Erik Pieters on a couple of occasions.

An early goal looked to be a blessing for Sunderland.

Stoke no longer had the option of sitting deep and soaking up pressure, as Norwich and Aston Villa have both done here over the last couple of months.

But as Mark Hughes abandoned five men across the middle of the park and tucked debutant Peter Odemwingie into the hole behind Peter Crouch, Sunderland suddenly looked petrified of conceding a leveller.

It took a couple of stunning saves from Vito Mannone to preserve the advantage at the interval, yet when Steven Nzonzi was dismissed early in the second half, it should have been the platform for Sunderland to coast to three points.

Initially it did. Altidore went perilously close moments after Nzonzi was sent off, only to be denied by a smart Begovic save.

But when Altidore was surprisingly withdrawn with 20 minutes to go, Sunderland seemed to crumble with anxiety.

In part, that was because they lost their focal point.

For all the criticism Altidore has taken over recent weeks, the American produced a marked improvement in his performance last night.

After Poyet had spoken of the need for a change in Sunderland’s attacking mindset prior to the game, there was a definite upturn in Altidore’s display.

Perhaps spurred on by the sight of Stoke’s defensive behemoths, Altidore used his muscle, used his size and went toe to toe with the Potters.

Altidore was denied only a second Premier League goal for Sunderland by a smart save from Begovic, yet this was far more encouraging stuff from the 24-year-old, particularly with his hold-up play.

Replacement Steven Fletcher was never able to offer Sunderland the same platform and, during those final 20 minutes, Stoke looked the side with an extra man.

Sunderland’s ball retention collapsed, while Stoke were able to consistently launch balls into the Black Cats’ area.

Had Odemwingie got more power behind a golden opportunity in the 73rd minute, the Potters could easily have nicked a point.

Yet these games at the wrong end of the table are regularly fraught with anxiety.

It’s not pretty, free-flowing attacking football. It’s dirty and scrappy where all that matters is the outcome. And on that score, last night’s three points were priceless for Sunderland.

The Black Cats got a few of the unwanted statistics off their backs – a first home win against a side in the bottom half and a first league victory at the Stadium of Light since November.

But the only one that really matters is Sunderland emerging from the relegation zone after spending five long months in those uncomfortable surroundings.

Psychologically, that will be massive for the Black Cats camp. It proves the transformation under Poyet is not just limited to the cups and Sunderland can emerge from the dogfight if they maintain their current form.

Getting that boost prior to Saturday’s Tyne-Wear derby is crucial too.

Sunderland can head to St James’s Park now with the pressure eased slightly.

A point on Tyneside would be a more than acceptable result for the Black Cats, but a win...

That would take Sunderland to the heady heights of averaging a point per game – surely one of the initial targets for Poyet, as it had been with predecessor Martin O’Neill – while also providing a buffer with the bottom three.

After the penalty shoot-out success at Manchester United and three points last night, perhaps it’s too much to hope for a third successive victory over the Magpies.

But victory last night has given Sunderland a platform. However ugly it was, the result was all that matters.

Twitter @youngsunecho