Sunderland 0 Wolves 0: Big Match Verdict

Seb Larsson

Seb Larsson

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WOLVES’ 2012 capitulation has inadvertently placed them in contention to break several of the top flight’s records for ineptitude – most of which seem to be held by Sunderland.

But Terry Connor’s side should escape bettering Derby County’s black mark for the most goals conceded in a solitary Premier League campaign, 16 adrift of that shameful tally of 89 with four meaningless games to navigate.

Nevertheless, the continued body-blows to the Wolves defence have evidently taken their toll.

In the opening five minutes on Saturday, both Wayne Hennessey and Stephen Ward shanked their panic-stricken clearances into touch, while even a simple hoof down the middle from Simon Mignolet caused consternation moments later.

Such a sight should have had Sunderland’s attack salivating at the prospect of extending Wolves’ run without a clean sheet to 31 harrowing games.

But there was no bloodthirsty determination to put Wolves’ lambs to the slaughter.

Instead, Sunderland allowed the pivotal opening stages to pass them by as the visitors grew in confidence and the Black Cats looked increasingly laboured as an attacking force.

The goals for Martin O’Neill’s side have instantly and inexplicably dried up after they attacked with such purpose and precision at Manchester City a fortnight ago.

Against Spurs there was mitigation for Sunderland’s failure to worry Brad Friedel, given the game was confined to the middle third of the pitch with neither side inflicting any palpitations in the opposing back-line.

But at Everton last week, Sunderland were negligible going forward, other than an ambitious Stephane Sessegnon overhead kick and although they had far more goal attempts yesterday, the Black Cats still lacked a spark or any conviction to their attacking play.

There were admittedly opportunities which Sunderland should have profited from, most notably Seb Larsson’s scoop over the bar from six yards at the death.

Yet they were largely half-chances, rather than instances of the hosts slicing through a struggling back-line.

It all bore a striking resemblance to Sunderland’s lumbering forward play pre-O’Neill.

Other than Sessegnon, too often forced to drift wide and attempt to conjure a miracle from his own volition, Sunderland never quite convinced that they would make the breakthrough.

James McClean had a couple of opportunities which he should have made more of, but as a provider, his supply lines were thwarted by the dogmatic Kevin Foley.

Larsson offered similarly frugal service from the opposite flank as fatigue and careless giveaways became a hallmark of his display after a bright opening 20 minutes when he had fired into the side netting and bombed down the right flank to help set up McClean.

Nicklas Bendtner never looked a goal threat, while without the energy and pressing of Lee Cattermole in central midfield, the double-act of Jack Colback and Craig Gardner had minimal impact going forward and were thwarted too easily by Wolves stand-in skipper Karl Henry.

Both Colback and particularly Gardner were culpable of being caught in possession too easily and it prevented Sunderland from gaining a platform to attack.

As the second half progressed, points-shy Wolves were the side who looked far more of a goal threat, particularly Steven Fletcher, who is surely an available frontman that will come under consideration by the Black Cats this summer.

Had Wolves still boasted a realistic chance of survival, then the desperation to scramble home a winner or flood the penalty box with bodies would have been enough for them to prevail.

Sunderland were at least spared the humiliation of suffering a fifth successive defeat against the Premier League’s basement boys, but a third goalless outing in a row inevitably sparks questions over the reasons behind the dry spell.

Fatigue is undoubtedly a factor, particularly with O’Neill clearly harbouring reservations over those on the fringes – again highlighted on Saturday when Fraizer Campbell was the only substitute introduced to a side that clearly needed fresh ideas.

It’s understandable legs are becoming weary as the summer draws near.

These players gave everything to transform the outlook on the club during the winter and now the after-effects of those exertions are taking their toll, with just one win in the last eight.

Subconsciously, there’s a bigger factor though.

Ever since O’Neill succeeded Steve Bruce, Sunderland’s players have had a goal to fight towards.

Firstly, there was the sense of under-achievement and a determination to move away from the relegation zone, coupled with the pressing need to impress the new manager.

Then there was the fervour created by an FA Cup run and a blockbusting Tyne-Wear derby.

Now, Sunderland have only the modest goal of a top-10 finish in their sights, with not even the incentive of finishing above the neighbours to hold aloft.

Perhaps it is inevitable that another climax to a campaign where positions and prize money are the only spoils remaining has an impact on the side’s intensity. It shouldn’t, but it does.

Sunderland need to rediscover their hunger going forwards over the final four games, though, because with only a solitary point separating six sides in the mid-table pack, the Black Cats’ hopes of a second top-10 finish hangs on their attacking potency.

It would be a galling anti-climax to what has been an enthralling campaign if Sunderland were to finish down in 14th by wilting in front of goal.