Chris Young’s big-match report: Misfiring Sunderland’s hard habit to break

Jozy Altidore.
Jozy Altidore.
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THE HEADY days of Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips are gone. Long gone.

Gus Poyet was at pains to point that out last week, as he tried to inject a sense of reality into supporters about Sunderland’s current position and the general state of the club over recent seasons.

It was a risk from Poyet to make such remarks. It wasn’t a million miles away from Steve Bruce’s seemingly endless bleats about “expectations” during his final days in the Sunderland hotseat.

Crucially though, Poyet issued a clause; insisting that he wouldn’t accept another constant state of scrapping in the relegation battle if Sunderland are still in the Premier League next season.

Poyet had a valid point.

Teetering on the brink of the drop has been Sunderland’s underwhelming fate for far too much of the last decade.

There couldn’t have been a much stronger illustration of why Sunderland find themselves in yet another relegation battle than Saturday’s sorry stalemate against Crystal Palace.

In terms of application and determination, there was little to pick fault with.

Poyet’s side started the game trying to play at a decent tempo and continued to charge around the pitch looking to find an opening, even when they persistently raced down blind alleys as the second half dragged on.

But when it comes to quality...

That has been the ever-present elephant in the room over each of the last three seasons.

In a one-off game, Sunderland have proved under Poyet that they can perform. But the Premier League is all about consistency and, in that respect, the squads which have been composed by Bruce, Martin O’Neill and Paolo Di Canio have been lacking.

In fairness on Saturday, Sunderland could boast some mitigation.

The strength of the wind and the condition of the pitch proved a distinct handicap towards Sunderland’s bid to move the ball around at pace on the deck, particularly in the second half when the Black Cats were kicking into the gale.

It made the game even uglier and scrappier than the relegation clash promised to be.

And with a splash of fortune, Sunderland could easily have broken the deadlock – a series of first-half crosses just deflecting out of range of red and white shirts, Jozy Altidore denied by a deceptively impressive save from Julian Speroni and Fabio Borini twice going desperately close within a matter of seconds.

But Sunderland’s inability to break down teams who come to the Stadium of Light and put 11 men behind the ball is not a one-off. It’s been a bad habit for the last three seasons.

The Black Cats lack players with sufficient guile to prise open doggedly determined back-lines, while they struggle to muster that irresistible momentum which visiting sides simply can’t stop.

Whether Bruce, O’Neill, Di Canio or Poyet have been at the helm, it’s been the same old frustrating story.

When the boot is on the other foot, Sunderland look a far more potent proposition. They will fancy their chances at Norwich City on Saturday, for example.

But Palace offered nothing particularly astonishing in their resistance.

There was next-to-no ambition from Tony Pulis’s side until they sensed the possibility of a snatch-and-grab raid in the final 10 minutes – a feat they almost managed when Kagisho Dikgacoi was a whisker away from a last-gasp winner.

The visitors were happy to let Sunderland have the ball, break play up with fouls and hoof it forwards to temporarily relieve the pressure. That was it.

Adam Johnson offered promise, Borini never stopped working and both full-backs bombed forward.

But, tellingly, Sunderland struggled to get in behind the Palace back four, while the three near-misses in the second half were the only genuine chances they created.

They needed less haste and more craft.

As the second half wore on too, desperation began to set in – too many aimless balls forward and too many headers that Palace were able to comfortably clear.

Would Poyet have been able to break the cycle of home sickness by taking a different approach with his starting XI? Possibly.

Steven Fletcher was full of flicks and attempted back-heels, yet badly lacking goal-scoring finesse.

The ankle injury which ended his afternoon and will keep him out for the next few weeks surely has to be taken as a sign that this season has almost become a write-off.

Altidore was much-improved from his half-hearted last display against Arsenal, but, after that chance early in the second half, he was limited to chasing and harrying.

Borini has still produced the only genuinely convincing performance from a Sunderland player in a central striker role this season.

The on-loan Liverpool man is by far the most likely frontman capable of finding the net in Sunderland’s ranks.

That presents difficulties for Poyet though. Neither Emanuele Giaccherini (tellingly not even in the squad on Saturday) nor Nacho Scocco (who again looked miles away from being up to speed) made a case at Hull to take Borini’s place on the left, to allow the Italian to play centrally.

Poyet clearly felt that Fletcher was more capable of producing a match-winning performance than either Altidore, Scocco or Giaccherini and that was why he kept faith with the Scotland international.

But Plan A didn’t reap the required rewards. With Fletcher injured, there will have to be a Plan B at Norwich and the calls for Borini to lead the line at Carrow Road have grown significantly, regardless of who occupies the left flank.

It needs to bring three points.

Prior to these two back-to-back games against Palace and Norwich, a total haul of four was a realistic target to give Sunderland a healthy chance of beating the drop.

If Sunderland cannot register a victory in East Anglia, it does not necessarily spell the end of the Black Cats’ survival hopes.

There will still be a further 10 games to go and, as Sunderland have already proved this season, they are more capable of securing the unexpected result, rather than the expected one.

But these are the opportunities Sunderland HAVE to take.

A continued failure to take them, will send Sunderland back to the days of banking on a Quinn and Phillips combination to get the club out of the Championship.

Twitter @youngsunecho