Phil Smith's verdict: What disappointing stalemate told us about Sunderland and Barnsley in fierce battle for second

With then minutes to go, Luke O'Nien played a heavy back pass and Jon McLaughlin was scrambling.

Wednesday, 13th March 2019, 10:53 am
Updated Wednesday, 13th March 2019, 11:03 am
A draw at Barnsley kept Sunderland's automatic promotion hopes alive

He recovered just in time, thumping the ball clear to the relief of 4,500 away fans at the other end.

This was it.

A draw at Barnsley kept Sunderland's automatic promotion hopes alive

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Ten minutes to go.

A game posed with almost unbearable tensions, the stakes never higher.

Expect from there it somewhat fizzled out. Two sides defeated by the elements, Gareth emerging as the game's key figure.

The storm raged and neither side were able to play anything like the open football they would have wanted.

Both sides pushed for a win in the latter stages, but took no major risks.

Jack Ross made just one change before stoppage time, Daniel Stendel just two, like-for-like replacements.

It felt like both knew the importance of not losing superseded anything else.

It was a night that changed little in the race for the top two.

Sunderland kept themselves in the race, but Barnsley underlined their status as favourites to join Luton Town in avoiding the tension of the play-offs.

Pre-match, Ross again underlined how well his side have done this season.

He was right to, the Black Cats again showing their resilience here in coming away unscathed against a side with an outstanding record on their home turf.

Sunderland, as Ross was would insist, probably have not had the credit they deserve for their record in the current campaign, given the extraordinary upheaval of last summer.

Though they are, for the moment, just short of the two-points-per-game ratio that most promotion sides aim for, they have proven themselves a strong League One unit.

The problem is that they are one of three superb teams slugging it out at the top.

Luton marched on with another impressive win on Tuesday night, while Barnsley underlined why they will take some stopping.

Both sides struggled in the atrocious conditions, but Stendel's side just about coped better.

In the first half, they benefited from having the wind on their backs and for Sunderland it really just became about survival.

They did that well.

Jon McLaughlin stood tall as he always does, while Jack Baldwin performed with eye-catching composure and resilience on his return to the team.

Lee Cattermole and Grant Leadbitter snapped and fought on the edge of the area, just about keeping their side level.

Though Gareth had calmed a touch by the time the second half began, Sunderland now had the advantage and they were able to show their strengths a little more.

Max Power ought to have scored when Baldwin sprung him free with a fine through ball, while Cattermole came inches away from turning a Lynden Gooch cross goalward.

The home side, though often on the back foot, played through the elements impressively, Alex Mowatt catching the eye as he carried the ball through midfield.

Stendel had no issue with the decision to rule Cauley Woodrow's goal out for offside, but that was another well built move down the left.

It's here that Sunderland might have some regret.

Seemingly too easily sucked into playing long balls into the gale, their direct passes were all too easily hoovered up by the impressive Liam Lindsay and Ethan Pinnock.

They were unable to build any significant spell of pressure that may have forced a priceless winner.

It leaves the advantage very much with Barnsley, but Sunderland still within striking distance.

As they battled against the barrage in the first half, they would taken that without question.

The onus is now on them to put together a winning sequence that can edge them ahead of a Barnsley side who look poised to finish the season strongly.

This looks like it will go right to the wire.

The big question for Sunderland is whether they can quickly rediscover the threat and fluidity they had before these two testing away games, both brutal occasions in their own way.