Opportunity knocks for Sunderland defender Denver Hume as Luke O'Nien stars: Six things learned from win over Walsall
Sunderland took advantage of Barnsley and Luton Town dropping points by taking maximum points at home to Walsall.
Here’s what we learned from the 2-1 win at the Stadium of Light.
Sunderland recover from dreadful start
Sunderland were slow, sluggish and erratic at the back in the opening exchanges with Walsall, the blustery conditions causing anxiety at the back.
When Tom Flanagan failed to deal with a ball punted forward he conceded a free-kick, from which Josh Gordon brilliantly back-heeled the Saddlers ahead.
And it could have been worse for Sunderland, Jon McLaughlin made a good block, Luke O’Nien having to scramble clear.
Sunderland had to fight hard for the victory, the Black Cats steadily improving as the game wore on.
Opportunity knocks for Denver Hume
Adam Matthews was forced off with a hamstring injury, he had looked uncomfortable for several minutes and was struggling to track back and clear his lines.
No surprise to see him depart, going straight down the tunnel for treatment. On came Denver Hume, the academy graduate understandably rusty at times but he looked a threat going forward, a driving run before over-hitting the pass to Will Grigg.
With Matthews being assessed for a hamstring injury and Reece James missing the weekend with a groin injury, Hume has suddenly moved up the pecking order for the Wembley final against Portsmouth.
Luke O’Nien superb at the back for Sunderland.
There has been a lot of talk about O’Nien and whether he should be let free in midfield but the form he is in at right-back means there is no chance of that happening anytime soon.
Constantly bombing forward at will, it was his defensive work that caught the eye against Walsall.
One block in the second half was worthy of winning any game. The Sunderland fans serenading him as the clock ticked down.
Charlie Wyke proves Sunderland bench will have a key role to play.
With 20 minutes to go, Sunderland were pushing for the winner, they had already had four good openings since half-time, Grant Leadbitter twice, Max Power and Aiden McGeady going close.
Jack Ross replaced a tiring Lewis Morgan - the biggest attacking threat in the opening 45 minutes - with Charlie Wyke.
With his first touch Wyke laid the ball off to Will Grigg and the Northern Ireland international did what he does best. Finished low into the bottom corner.
A confidence boost for Wyke to be involved in the winner and it showed the bench has a key role to play in the run-in.
Will Grigg repaying his big price tag.
It made headlines when Sunderland splashed out up to £4million on Will Grigg on deadline day.
So far, he has three goals to his name, two in League One, and he is beginning to repay the vast sums spent on him.
In recent weeks Sunderland’s big players have stepped up when needed, McGeady against AFC Wimbledon and Grigg with a smart finish against Walsall.
Key moments in the promotion race.
Crucial that Sunderland signed off with a win.
With Barnsley drawing at Doncaster and Luton being held to a draw at home to Gillingham it was imperative Sunderland took advantage and closed the points gap before signing off from league action for two weeks.
They did just that. Third-placed Sunderland beat struggling Walsall but it felt like a significant victory in the promotion battle.
Nine games to go. It’s going down to the wire. Strap yourselves in.