Was that the crucial weekend in the relegation fight? Reasons to be fearful... and one to be hopeful, for Sunderland
Manchester City, had, heading into the weekend, felt like something of a free hit.
Their destruction of Huddersfield Town and, more pertinently, Monaco, left little hope of a much needed win.
With City’s front line in sparkling form and Sunderland shipping four to Southampton the last time they played at the Stadium of Light, hope was in low supply.
This wouldn’t be the game that defined the season.
That remains the case, and offered a 2-0 defeat on Friday night, some may have seen that as a disappointing result but perhaps a disaster averted.
Two things changed that, however, and has led to heavy soul-searching among the Sunderland fanbase, a sense that this, now, is surely it.
First was the manner of the defeat.
A promising start, pro-active and encouraging, that faded once City had the ball in the net.
That is a repeated pattern this season, and the lethargy that marked the closing quarter of the game from the hosts has dimmed hopes of a revival.
Secondly, and most importantly, was the seismic shift in momentum during the three o’clock Saturday kick-offs.
All of a sudden the current bottom three look camped in, running out of games and unlikely to overhaul those just above the dreaded line who are beginning to find consistent results.
Further up the field, Bournemouth, who were beginning to look late sinkers, landed a surprising point at Manchester United.
Playing the second half with ten men, the way they shut the game down, breaking up play, players staying down for as long as possible, showed a resilience and gamesmanship many didn’t think possible from Eddie Howe’s side and there is a distinct sense of a wobbling ship settled.
Reasons to be fearful, reasons to be hopeful. The full picture shows Sunderland deep, deep in trouble but not down yet.
The new manager momentum?
The two favourites for the drop with the bookies are Sunderland and Middlesbrough, the only two sides in the bottom six so far not to have sacked their manager this season.
Clearly both sides have deeper issues than that but it is interesting that neither side have had a real run this season.
Sunderland came close in November when they won three out of four, but injuries extinguished that revival before it really got going.
Middlesbrough’s defence has been good but a lack of firepower has prevented them from stringing together the run of wins they needed to solidify a mid-table position. Not winning is a habit and decline has set in.
Crystal Palace and Leicester City, have at the best time, done what is so rare and won back-to-back games.
The key to the rest of the season is whether this is merely a short-term bounce or a prolonged pattern.
For Swansea City, it is clearly the latter. They have now won five in 11 and the decision to ruthlessly dispense of Bob Bradley’s services has paid rich dividends. Organisation off the ball has gone through the roof, while the American’s bizarre selections have been rectified.
Fernando Llorente is reaping the benefits of regular selection and the defence is finally settled.
The fear is that something similar is happening at Crystal Palace.
Sam Allardyce criticised his players for not listening to his message before a crucial win over Middlesbrough, and now they not only have consecutive wins but consecutive clean sheets.
That is ominous for the current bottom three, particularly for Sunderland fans who know how hard Big Sam’s teams are to beat when they understand and come on board with his way of playing.
Leicester’s situation is still unclear.
Craig Shakespeare’s back-to-basics approach has brought initial success but can he keep confidence up with a setback? He is a player’s favourite right now but will that last if he makes a selection call that they don’t agree with?
Hope for Sunderland must come from Hull City, much improved under Marco Silva but whose initial surge following his appointment has seen a return to struggle.
Perhaps Allardyce and Shakespeare are merely papering over the cracks for now.
Regardless, it is a big challenge for David Moyes to initiate a boost for a club so low on confidence, on and off the field. After encouraging signs midway through the season you’d have to say it now looks a big ask to find a new blueprint that is capable of winning a run of games.
January spending starting to show
That remarkable, unexpected hammering of Crystal Palace led to a necessary re-examination of Sunderland’s January business.
Bryan Oviedo was excellent, while Joleon Lescott and Darron Gibson were tidy when brought off the bench.
None of that trio have let themselves down as of yet but it must be said that David Moyes’ warnings that the transfer window would not see players who could make a ‘major difference’ arrive is being borne out.
Particularly in comparison to other sides.
The January bounce is arguably a much bigger problem to Sunderland than the new manager bounce.
Swansea’s business initially looked under whelming but Martin Olsson has scored twice, Luciano Narsingh has two assists. Tom Carroll has been absolutely key to Llorente’s form, his crossing bringing the best out of the Spaniard’s aerial threat.
Hull, struggling again, at least have added pace to their front line in Lazar Markovic and Kamil Grosicki, giving Marco Silva’s counter-attacking style a chance of success.
Palace’s clean sheets clearly owe much to Allardyce, but equally to Mamadou Sakho and Luka Milivojevic strengthening their resolve.
Middlesbrough and Sunderland are dealing with the double whammy of not only losing ground to their rivals in terms of the quality of their squad, but also suffering a dip in morale from a lack of business.
That is especially true for Middlesbrough, who at one stage looked like landing Jese Rodriguez and Robert Snodgrass.
Sunderland’s great hope.
Their results in 2017 have been poor but how many of them were truly missed opportunities?
Stoke and Southampton, clearly, West Brom away, perhaps.
Yet Sunderland have only had one high-pressure game against a struggling side and they won emphatically.
They have 11 to play and despite the fact, for all the reasons listed above, a dramatic turnaround seems unlikely, the same would have been said before that mid-season run.
Sunderland beat Bournemouth, Hull, Leicester and Watford in a much needed boost so there has to be some hope that they can do the same again.
No side in the bottom six has a particularly brutal run-in but Sunderland’s is the best.
There will be so much pressure if it goes to the final two games, likely to be Arsenal and Chelsea, but perhaps those sides will have nothing to play for and that could help Sunderland.
There is little reason for cheer, and this would almost certainly be the Black Cats’ greatest ever escape.