Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Sunderland enjoy depth charge

Craig Gardner.
Craig Gardner.
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SHOULD Nicklas Bendtner succumb to the calf injury which sparked an impromptu stretcher-bound lap of honour, Sunderland will rue the timing of their spate of absenteeism.

A side is only as good as the depth beyond the first XI in this era of endemic muscle pulls and tears, yet some inevitably occupy a more pivotal role in a team’s fortunes than others.

Bendtner, Stephane Sessegnon, Lee Cattermole and Kieran Richardson have all more or less benefited from a starting spot – when available – under Martin O’Neill and should do so again in the finale when free from ailments or the wrath of the rule book.

To potentially lose the quartet on the eve of Sunderland’s biggest cup game in almost a decade is indisputably a blow to the Wearsiders’ chances of ending their Goodison curse or halting the nine-game unbeaten run of the in-form Toffees this weekend.

Certainly, Sessegnon, Cattermole and Richardson would have featured from kick-off against Liverpool, on Saturday, if available, with all three noticeable in their absence.

Sessegnon, especially, left many of the Stadium of Light’s second highest crowd of the season, lamenting the gulf of creativity and unpredictability which was lost when the Benin international thrust his arm into the vicinity of budding thespian Cheik Tiote.

In a first half that saw two methodical, committed and defensively organised units produce a predictable stalemate, Sessegnon could have been the maverick – twisting and turning away from ill-at-ease Liverpool centre-half Sebastian Coates.

Despite the efforts of the bright and ambitious James McClean in constantly worrying Liverpool right-back Martin Kelly, Sunderland’s counter-attack lacked the strength and pace of Sessegnon on the break.

He was not alone in being missed.

Given the form and influence Cattermole has exerted under O’Neill, plus the manner in which Richardson has emerged as a convincing left-back, rather than a makeshift defender, the duo were similarly significant absences.

But the great thing about Sunderland’s success in prevailing against Kenny Dalglish’s one-paced and toothless side, was the manner in which they adapted to the loss of key players.

Yes, there was a realisation that Cattermole, Sessegnon and Richardson left significant voids to fill, but an eagerness to adapt emerged from those left behind in the trenches.

Sunderland concentrated on the assets of those remaining in the side and played to those strengths – a rigorously solid defence, the ceaseless work-rate of the midfield and the swift pressing of Fraizer Campbell.

The England striker’s desire to chase and harass Liverpool’s back four and goalkeeper regularly ceded possession cheaply back to Sunderland, who were able to relaunch an attack from an advanced base camp.

Admittedly, those forays forward often petered out as Sunderland struggled to unlock Liverpool’s stingy defence after lengthy periods of possession.

Yet this was an encounter which always promised to follow such a pattern and on the one occasion when Sunderland’s strikers needed to deliver, they justified O’Neill’s faith – Campbell seeing his shot hit the post and Bendtner showing sufficient predatory instinct to follow in for the rebound.

Liverpool had a touch more purpose following that opener, yet never really worried a Sunderland defence growing in resilience despite an enforced change at left-back.

Dalglish’s side fancied their chances of exploiting Wayne Bridge’s lack of match sharpness as the on-loan former England man made his first Premier League start since facing Sunderland in a West Ham shirt on the final day of last season.

Bridge was perhaps a touch tentative under the high ball in the early stages, but he grew as the game wore on and the introduction of Liverpool’s big guns barely produced a bead of sweat on his cool brow.

It was a similar story in midfield as Jack Colback and Craig Gardner provided the protection to the back four lost with Cattermole’s suspension.

Considering Liverpool played with much of the match with a compact central trio of Charlie Adam, Jay Spearing and ex-Black Cats Jordan Henderson, the Sunderland duo faced a lung-busting challenge, yet they made light of the numerical disadvantage by constantly closing down any hint of space which threatened to emerge.

Gardner’s opportunities for his favoured attacking contribution were limited, but, from a defensive viewpoint, the former Birmingham man was impeccable.

The £5million summer signing was tigerish in the tackle, snarling at any Liverpool midfielder who dared to enter his territory and it was a similar story for Colback, as the duo recommenced their impressive double act from Cattermole’s recent lay-off with a hamstring strain.

A third middle man, in David Vaughan, shouldn’t have his contribution overlooked either – the former Blackpool man providing a cool head for the final 15 minutes, just as Liverpool were beginning to monopolise possession.

Ideally, O’Neill would relish the prospect of welcoming back Cattermole, Sessegnon and Richardson into his starting XI at Goodison Park on Saturday despite those holding the shirts ending Sunderland’s three-game winless league streak.

But the sight of the absent trio’s replacements shrugging off their missing comrades to battle through in an ugly, scrappy affair will have given O’Neill just as much heart as if his resources were at full strength.