Graeme Anderson’s match report: Sunderland’s journey to redemption

Sunderland's Emanuele Giaccherini misses an easy chance during the Barclays Premier League match at Villa Park.
Sunderland's Emanuele Giaccherini misses an easy chance during the Barclays Premier League match at Villa Park.
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PREMIER League sponsors Barclays bussed Sunderland supporters to this game as part of a scheme highlighting the quiet heroism of the long-distance fan.

They might easily have gone the whole hog and offered victim support and counselling, such has been the thankless and exasperating task of following the red and whites this season.

Saturday’s draw against Aston Villa was only Sunderland’s second away point of the campaign, bringing to an end a run of five consecutive defeats on the road.

The Wearsiders have won only twice away from home in 2013 and not at all this season.

Yet still the faithful turn up in their droves.

On Saturday, they could at least arrive in the knowledge they were sharing a stadium with royalty – the Duke of Cambridge, Villa’s most famous fan, wrapped up in a claret and blue scarf against the late November chill in one of the hospitality boxes.

But it turned out not to be a game fit for a king, not even one in waiting – as two competitive sides found only stalemate and a goalless draw which produced just one or two moments of note in the 90 minutes.

Dull though much of it was though, this was a priceless afternoon for Gus Poyet, who recorded his first point on his travels as Sunderland head coach, and also for those travelling fans who should have been given real hope by the dogged and deserved way their team earned a draw playing the Poyet way.

The head coach made three changes and all worked well.

Andrea Dossena offered a greater attacking threat down the left flank; Fabio Borini went desperately close to scoring and also made a good defensive contribution, while Craig Gardner, the most controversial pick of the trio, might have scored the winner on another day but for an eagle-eyed linesman.

Sunderland started the game the way they meant to go on – holding on to possession and patiently passing it around.

It looked like it might be an attempt to bore the opposition into submission and Villa quickly tried to seize the initiative, making the most of their pace and trying to get around the back of Sunderland.

Striker Gabby Agbonlahor was one of four changes made from Villa’s derby draw against West Brom and was easily the most effective on the afternoon.

In the third minute, he headed Fabian Delph’s inviting cross from the right narrowly wide from close range at the far post and, a minute later, he forced the first save of the game with a low drive outside the box which Vito Mannone saved solidly.

It was one of very few saves the Italian had to make on an afternoon when former Manchester United duo Wes Brown and John O’Shea were outstanding in the heart of the Sunderland defence.

This was not to be a tale purely of stubborn resistance from the Wearsiders though.

In the sixth minute, left-back Dossena received the ball in space from Steven Fletcher and should have hit the target rather than scorch the outside side netting from the left of goal.

Gardner’s run in behind almost paid off in the 15th minute when he lobbed the on-rushing Brad Guzan from a Dossena ball over the top but could not flick the ball on target.

Midway through the first half, Dossena and Emanuele Giaccherini linked up well to force a corner from the left and lay the foundations for two great balls across the box which Sunderland failed to capitalise on.

The first saw Dossena put an inviting ball across a crowded area which Fletcher got a high boot to as it flashed through.

From the next move, Ki put a great ball across the box in an almost identical move, but four Sunderland players could not make contact,

And the Black Cats were on top as the half-hour beckoned – Gardner breaking upfield, only to overhit a pass to Borini on his right when he should have found Giaccherini on his left.

Sunderland were almost made to pay for these missed openings on the half-hour when a swift move upfield saw Ashley Westwood find Christian Benteke, who clipped a first-time shot a couple of yards over the bar.

But Poyet’s men were more than holding their own.

And Gardner had the ball in the back of the net in the 41st minute when he swivelled on a loose ball, which had been only half blocked by Villa’s defence, and stroked it home, but the flag was already up for offside on the ex-Villa man.

A handball midway inside the Villa half offered Sunderland a free-kick which was pumped into the area, O’Shea heading it down and Brown sweeping the ball goalwards only for it to strike the hand of Ciaran Clark.

It could easily have been a penalty, but Neil Swarbrick was having as good a game refereeing the Black Cats as his colleague Kevin Friend had had a bad one in the Wearsiders’ last one.

The Preston official waved play on and, in truth, Sunderland would certainly have been aggrieved if an identical situation had resulted in a penalty kick being awarded against them at the opposite end of the pitch.

It should not have mattered though because a couple of minutes later came the moment when Sunderland should have grabbed the lead – Phil Bardsley, on the right of the box, nodded a header across goal and perfectly into the path of Giaccherini.

The Italian seemed certain to score.

But, from three yards out and under some pressure from the onrushing Guzan, he somehow clipped his shot over the bar – an effort which will feature on any “Misses of the Season” videos for this campaign.

Sunderland started the second half brightly but had to resist a real surge up to the hour-mark from a Villa side which had probably had a tough half-time team talk from manager Paul Lambert.

The first attack of note came in the 49th minute when Agbonlahor beat Dossena to a ball down Villa’s right before forcing a brave block from Mannone at the near post.

From the resulting corner, the unhappy Benteke headed wide. Westwood mustered a useful shot a few minutes later, while Karim El Ahmadi crashed a shot not far wide from 30 yards out in the 58th minute.

But the hour came up with Sunderland having ridden out the pressure and making real inroads of their own.

In the 64th minute, Giaccherini gained ground well after a fine forward ball from Brown and almost found Fletcher in the six-yard box.

A minute later, the Italian winger did much better, conjuring up a great delivery from the left which Borini headed powerfully against the crossbar with Guzan beaten.

It was the closest either side was to come to scoring, though it was not for want of trying by either side.

Villa finished the game strongly, but the Sunderland goal rarely looked in any danger, so dominant and disciplined were Brown and O’Shea.

Brown completed his fifth game in a month and has brought genuine resilience to the leakiest defence in the division – only two goals have been conceded by Sunderland while he has been on the pitch in those five games.

As for O’Shea – so much a better centre-half when Brown shoulders the leadership burden – he ended the game limping with a muscle injury.

Both players will be needed to continue their partnership if Sunderland’s recent improvement is to be maintained – together they really are a genuine defensive class act.

For Poyet though – lack of goals notwithstanding – it was a day to be genuinely encouraged.

“It was our best performance away from home, without a doubt,” he said.

“We made it difficult for Villa, we were brave on the ball, we tried to play it the right way and, on top of that, we created three or four really good chances.

“For a team down at the bottom, playing away from home at Villa Park, I didn’t think we did too badly.”

Those sentiments would no doubt have been echoed by Sunderland’s away fans who, for once, were able to return home with something other than scowl.

Those travelling on the Barclays buses had their own journey sweetened by the fact their transport was free.

But Saturday’s display and result must also have offered them a little bit more hope that if Barclays repeat the offer for Premier League clubs next season, Sunderland fans will still be involved in the queue for tickets.

Twitter @sunechograeme