Chris Young: Sunderland’s survival bid rests on Jermain Defoe, so give him a chance!

Jermain Defoe. Picture by FRANK REID
Jermain Defoe. Picture by FRANK REID
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In 13 months in a Sunderland shirt, Jermain Defoe has been largely limited to starvation rations in a team unable to emerge from the dregs of the table.

The 11th top scorer in the history of the Premier League has faced the ignominy of being used as a supplementary full-back during last season’s finale, been told he was unable to operate as a lone frontman, and chained to the epicentre of transfer speculation.

But, despite those obstacles, Defoe can almost boast a goal every other game from his 34 Premier League starts in a Sunderland shirt.

Six of Sunderland’s 10 Premier League goals since the turn of the year, have come via Defoe – now the first Black Cats player to net double figures in the top flight since Steven Fletcher in 2012-13.

And it’s increasingly becoming clear that Defoe is not just key to Sunderland’s hopes of remaining in the top flight, their whole survival bid may rest on the shoulders of the England international.

The sight of him rubbing his hamstring during stoppage time at the end of the game at Anfield was enough to send a shiver down the spine.

While Defoe is on the pitch, Sunderland still have a chance of beating the drop, however slim their prospects appear to be when the gap to safety remains at four points.

Let’s be frank, who else looks like regularly scoring at present?

Patrick van Aanholt should have added to his purple patch when he thrashed the ball into the side netting at Anfield, while Adam Johnson benefited from the drained confidence of ex-Sunderland keeper Simon Mignolet to get Sam Allardyce’s side back in contention with a free-kick into the bottom corner of the net.

But that was Johnson’s first goal since the Wear-Tyne derby.

It was Sunderland’s first in the Premier League in 2016 that had not been scored by either Defoe, van Aanholt or a member of the opposition.

For all Defoe grew frustrated with the appalling service from his team-mates at Liverpool – booting the ball into the Kop when Sunderland were 2-0 down – he remained on the look-out for that one opportunity to get himself on the scoresheet.

That’s what he lives for. All the travails of the previous 89 minutes were instantly forgotten when he span away from sloppy Liverpool centre-half Mamadou Sakho to net the equaliser.

So when Sunderland have got such a stellar weapon in their midst, why can’t they make more of it?

This was a Liverpool side who have persistently proved their defensive vulnerability over recent weeks, yet Defoe was limited to craning his neck as the ball soared over his head.

The only chance the ex-Spurs man had prior to his goal stemmed from an awful throw out of defence from Mignolet straight to Jan Kirchhoff.

Sunderland’s players still haven’t completely acclimatised to the absence of an orthodox targetman up front and the need to get balls into Defoe’s feet, rather than ‘hit and hope’ hoofs forward.

The inability to keep possession simply created a 30-yard exclusion zone around Defoe from any of his team-mates.

The hard-working Wahbi Khazri tried to help out, but rarely received the ball in the final third, while the impressive van Aanholt was ever-willing to bomb forwards from left-back, yet, again, didn’t receive sufficient support.

It wasn’t down to the system, even though matters improved when Johnson was introduced in the second half as an attacking midfielder.

Sunderland were a real threat for long periods against Manchester City last midweek, despite fielding three holding players in the middle of the park.

No, it was more down to Allardyce’s side sitting so deep that no-one could get up the pitch quickly enough to support Defoe, and Emre Can again and again was able to begin Liverpool’s laboured attacks from in front of the back four.

The thinking behind soaking up Liverpool’s pressure, creating frustration on already opinionated terraces and then trying to nick a winner late-on was understandable.

For an hour, it made for an awful spectacle, but, with Sunderland failing to keep a clean sheet since November, it was a pragmatic ploy from Allardyce, even if goalkeeper Vito Mannone was called upon to make an excellent save to deny Alberto Moreno.

But being defensively resilient does not have to equate to being redundant at the other end.

In fact, sitting so close to Mannone’s goal proved to be counter-productive, with James Milner’s admittedly excellent inswinging cross converted by Roberto Firmino inside the six-yard box.

Sunderland can’t play for draws with the position that they’re in now either.

Allardyce’s objective of six wins from the final 13 games is an uphill task for a side who have triumphed just five times this season, but it’s the reality that Sunderland face.

When approximately 20 points are required from the run-in, Sunderland are probably going to have to emerge victorious on six occasions if they are to avoid falling head-first into the Championship, rather than just teetering on the brink.

But while the defence is clearly a concern – particularly with Billy Jones needing to be taken out of the firing line – Sunderland need sufficient fire-power to win games.

They need to make sure that their main man at least has some sustenance to feed on during the relegation run-in.