Big match verdict – Mignolet unrivalled as Premier League keeper

Simon Mignolet
Simon Mignolet
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EXPERIENCE has taught reporters that questioning Simon Mignolet over his personal heroics is a redundant quest.

However towering Mignolet’s performance may have been, the 24-year-old consistently remains a figure of modesty – stressing that any gravity-defying saves are part of his job and immediately shifting any credit to those in front of him.

So with Mignolet content to continue as an unsung hero, it is left to others to laud the qualities of this unflappable young Belgian while the national audience remains ignorant of his prowess.

Seriously, are there any better stoppers in the top flight than Mignolet? Joe Hart? Petr Cech? Maybe Pepe Reina?

Again Mignolet displayed his pedigree at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday.

It wasn’t a case of Mignolet making a string of stunning saves to keep Stoke at bay, far from it – the former St Truiden man went more than an hour between stops against a Potters attack as impotent as Sunderland’s.

But that arguably made Mignolet’s display all the more impressive.

When Stoke finally lurched into gear in the final 10 minutes, Mignolet’s concentration was impeccable – stunningly blocking Robert Huth’s point-blank effort, gathering the defender’s header from a corner moments later and finally pawing the ball out of Peter Crouch’s path when he was through on goal.

Apart from the saves, Mignolet dealt with the bread and butter impeccably as he invariably does. He even managed a Cruyff-turn as Michael Kightly chased him down.

Whether punching or catching amid the throng lingering in the area, Mignolet wasn’t fazed in the land of the giants, unlike predecessor Craig Gordon whose trepidation at the Britannia two years ago unlocked a losing streak that would stigmatise Steve Bruce.

But while Mignolet is deserving of every drop of ink that lauds his consistency as Sunderland’s number one, it is a telling indictment that the goalkeeper again dominates the praise to be attributed in the post-mortem.

Defensively, Sunderland were superb on Saturday.

The two centre-halves dealt with every punt that was arrowed towards Peter Crouch and showed sufficient composure to remain unruffled as Stoke threatened a winner during eight lively minutes of stoppage time.

John O’Shea and Carlos Cuellar have instantly formed a genuinely impressive partnership, that has the experience to soak up pressure in the counter-attacking style Martin O’Neill favours.

Likewise, Danny Rose is blossoming (no pun intended) as Sunderland’s first-choice left-back with a run of regular Premier League games, while it wasn’t until the introduction of Matthew Etherington that Craig Gardner looked remotely worried on the opposite side.

Don’t overlook the contribution of Lee Cattermole either, with the skipper reinstating that bite and distribution from the base of midfield which was so noticeably absent while he watched from the stands.

But the foundations of this side have barely been ruffled all season. The problem, as we all know, has been at the other end and the inability to convert draws into victories.

Not that a point at the Britannia should ever be considered a failure. Stoke made it 11 home outings without defeat on Saturday – not finishing on the losing side in the Potteries since Sunderland’s win there in February.

Only the most foolhardy of supporters would have snubbed a draw before the weekend and if Sunderland can emerge victorious against Middlesbrough tomorrow and Aston Villa on Saturday, it will look an even better result.

But, in the context of the season so far, yet another draw – and yet another goalless outing, only prompts further questions about the potency of Sunderland’s attack.

So how does O’Neill convert the solitary points into maximums?

The one change O’Neill made to his starting line-up was with a view to solidity, rather than outright victory, albeit Stephane Sessegnon could have few complaints about being confined to the sanctuary of the substitutes’ bench.

Ironically, Sessegnon was relatively bright after being introduced for the final 30 minutes and mustered Sunderland’s only clear-cut chance, which Steven Fletcher contrived to dally over before Stoke blocked, albeit via the hand of Huth.

Perhaps that was a sign that Sunderland’s goal worries are even getting to Fletcher.

Earlier in his Sunderland career, Fletcher may have simply smashed it first time. Now the thought must cross his mind that he has to make the most of any opportunity, for fear he won’t get another one.

Sunderland blatantly need to give Fletcher more support, both through their passing and through simply getting more bodies around the Scotland international.

Far too often this season, Fletcher has been a lone wolf with no-one around him to play a one-two or pick up his knock-downs.

At one point in the first half, Fletcher dropped deep to link the play in one of those familiar passages of neat yet ultimately meaningless passing in the middle of the park, and there wasn’t a Sunderland shirt within 20 yards of Stoke’s centre-halves.

The midfielders need to take a chance and get in or beyond Fletcher, if Sunderland are to go from solid to victorious.

In fairness, Jack Colback tried to do so, but none of his runs were picked out by a raking ball forward – Sunderland preferring to play safe with a sideways pass rather than take a 50-50 punt over the top.

With both out-of-sorts wingers, particularly the industrious yet ineffective James McClean, struggling to hit the by-line and deliver any crosses beyond the first man, there has to be a greater emphasis on offering a threat from central midfield.

For all Colback disrupted Stoke’s play – crucial in any trip to the Britannia –he couldn’t offer a goal threat.

Neither could Adam Johnson or Seb Larsson in their spells in the hole behind Fletcher.

Whether Gardner or Sessegnon are the answer in that role, or O’Neill opts for an orthodox front two with Louis Saha alongside Fletcher, the Sunderland manager has plenty to ponder ahead of back-to-back Stadium of Light outings.

For while a point at Stoke offers some sustenance, the pattern of draws needs to be broken.