Graeme Anderson’s Sunderland match report: It could have been so much worse

Marcoa Alonso, Phil Bardsley, Wes Brown John O'Shea all attack a cross against Crystal Palace.

Marcoa Alonso, Phil Bardsley, Wes Brown John O'Shea all attack a cross against Crystal Palace.

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MANY anguished and heartfelt howls of disappointment at the final whistle of this game from the home fans.

Understandable all.

But I’ve seen worse.

In doomed relegation seasons of the past few decades, these are the matches Sunderland lose, not draw.

And the abiding memory of this clash should be how easily Sunderland might have let it slip; as much as how surely they should have won.

The Black Cats dominated almost all the way to the 89th minute, when the Eagles’ big chance came – Cameron Jerome, inside the box, tapped the ball forward to Kagisho Dikgacoi on the right and the goal suddenly opened up for the South African.

The midfielder could hardly have struck his shot truer, but somehow it pulled just wide of the far post.

Craig Gardner, busting a gut to cover, was facing goal when the rocket shot flashed by his chest so closely he must have been able to smell the leather as it cut between him and the woodwork and somehow failed to hit either.

A comical own goal at that stage and subsequent defeat would truly have felt like a torpedo to Sunderland’s survival hopes this season.

As it is, a point lifted them above Cardiff City, kept them within three points of Palace and saw them gain ground on relegation rivals Norwich City – who they play this Saturday.

Sunderland coach Gus Poyet knows this is not the time for faint hearts as Premier League clubs contemplate the most nail-biting of relegation run-ins.

And for that reason, he was looking on the bright side – pleased that his players had shown themselves capable of completely dominating Premier League opposition, happy that his side had played well enough to win, even if it had not won on the day.

“I understand it’s another game gone by and a lot of people will be frustrated, but I know the players and I know how much I ask of them,” he said.

“On the day, they gave me everything.

“Yes, I would have liked them to score, but Ki running with the ball, Johnno creating space for the rest, Jozy working hard in the box – they were all doing their job.

“All the way around the pitch, they were all doing their best.

“We had conceded four, three and three in our previous three games.

“In this game, we kept a clean sheet, so there’s a positive for a start.”

Poyet had started the day going for a win which would have been massive in the context of the survival battle – victory would have lifted Sunderland out of the relegation zone at Palace’s expense.

To that end, the Uruguayan made seven changes to the side which lost so abjectly to Hull City in the FA Cup quarter-final last weekend.

In came Vito Mannone, Wes Brown, Marcos Alonso, Liam Bridcutt, Ki Sung-Yueng, Adam Johnson and Fabio Borini, as Poyet returned to a side looking much more like the team which performed so well in the recent Capital One Cup final.

One significant change from the showpiece game, though, was that Borini was deployed on the left, rather than as the lone striker – that role was given to Steven Fletcher.

Poyet’s side were up against a Palace outfit which arrived in the North East having taken just seven points on their travels all season.

So, unsurprisingly, they were set up defensively from the start – all 11 players inside their own half in the opening few minutes. If Eagles boss Tony Pulis was going to win the game, he was going to win ugly.

Sunderland’s strikers have called for more balls into the box in games and they got enough in the opening five minutes – two Seb Larsson free-kicks from the left and an Adam Johnson curler from the right.

But strong winds all game made lofted balls a lottery – the free-kicks did not find their mark and Johnson’s centre was guided wide by Fletcher’s shoulder.

It was a promising start from the home side and it continued and continued with plenty of urgency to get the ball into the danger areas swiftly.

Such were the problems Sunderland were causing that both Palace’s full-backs were booked in the opening dozen minutes – something which boded well for the hosts as they continued to press.

But, for all their ambition, Sunderland struggled to find the killer pass or the killer shot.

Left-back Marcos Alonso shot straight at keeper Julian Speroni from outside the area in the ninth minute.

In the 10th minute, Borini’s poor first touch deprived him of a shot and his effort to play in Ki pushed the South Korean just a fraction too wide.

Palace didn’t threaten Sunderland’s goal until the 19th minute when Liam Bridcutt was harshly booked for a foul on Mile Jedinak and the Australian took the subsequent free-kick.

From midway inside the Sunderland half, Jedinak let fly but it was less a threat, more a warning shot, so wide of the target was the effort.

Sunderland upped their game in the minutes that followed and created several chances, the best of which saw Borini drive a low centre across the box from the left which Fletcher tried to back-heel the ball into the net but failed to make contact with.

The £12million Fletcher of old used to gobble up those sorts of chances.

A couple of minutes later and another rushed attack saw Johnson fire wide as the ball came to him quickly from the left. Then, in the 27th minute, a first-time Johnson cross eluded both Fletcher and Borini when both were well-placed had the ball bounced more kindly.

The half-hour came up with Sunderland in complete charge and the best Palace could hope for, at that stage, was a bit of luck – which they got when Mannone slipped on a clearance, though the Italian got up swiftly to bring down Tom Ince’s resulting snapshot from range.

After that, it was all Sunderland again, but, apart from a spectacular, but wayward, volley from Ki and an acrobatic overhead kick from Borini which dropped just over the crossbar, there was little to worry Speroni.

The ineffective Fletcher failed to reappear for the second half, having suffered a recurrence of an ankle problem, and his place was taken by Jozy Altidore, who showed the right response to having been dropped from the cup final squad.

He worked hard and diligently and he might have broken the deadlock in the 50th minute when he picked up a chipped ball forward from Wes Brown, to turn and whip in a rising left-foot shot which Speroni knew little about as he instinctively gloved it wide.

Sunderland continued to threaten fitfully for the remainder of the game.

A Bridcutt centre drilled in from the right flank was turned wide by Borini in the 55th minute, but the game became scrappier after that and Palace began to get occasional glimpses of Sunderland’s goal in the last 20 minutes.

Asked later what Sunderland need to make the difference in games like these, Poyet responded: “We could do with a Player of the Month again – like we had with Adam Johnson in January – it is just a case of looking for a player to have a purple patch.“

Borini is the closest Sunderland have to that player right now and, in the 82nd minute, he went desperately close – latching on to a Bridcutt pass and crashing a shot from the right against the woodwork.

Seconds later, he popped up in front of goal, just outside the area, when he picked up possession and curled a shot inches over the target.

But then came Dikgacoi’s miss, which reminded us that while this result was a big disappointment it was not a major disaster.

“I felt that we were bound to score, but that’s football, sometime it just doesn’t happen,” said Poyet. “We have a full week now and, having avoided defeat, we have stopped the rot.”

That was probably the best thing that could be taken out of the game.

But the bottom line is that there has to be a major improvement in Sunderland’s home form if they are to stay up this season – they have won only three times at the Stadium of Light.

Although four of their five remaining home games are against teams in the bottom half of the division, no team has taken fewer points from bottom-half-of-the-table teams than Sunderland this season.

It is a dangerous combination.

And all the more reason for Sunderland to eye this weekend’s trip to Carrow Road with a sense of anticipation.

They have picked up more points on the road than at home this season and an away victory over similarly relegation-threatened opponents would be the perfect pick-me-up.

Sunderland fans have to hope their side have just a little more success against the Canaries, than they enjoyed against the Eagles.

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