Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Major surgery is the answer

Seb Larsson.
Seb Larsson.
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SO THE relegation trapdoor remains ajar for at least another 24 hours.

Hopefully, it will not be open much longer.

For all Wigan performed heroics at Wembley to win the FA Cup on Saturday, it’s a big ask to record back-to-back wins from their last two games, particularly against an Arsenal side who need to nudge their way back into the top four and an Aston Villa outfit still in the dogfight themselves.

A point, that was the very maximum Sunderland deserved from a desperately sloppy, disjointed display against Southampton yesterday, should be enough for the Black Cats to limp over the line.

That reliance on other results is undoubtedly a shameful indictment of Sunderland’s season and the “progress” made after another £30-odd million of Ellis Short’s investment.

But without wishing to tempt fate, should the gates on entry to the Premier League bounty club slam shut on Wigan tomorrow, then it is the revolving door at the Stadium of Light which will be intriguing during the summer.

Short stood looking pensive at the front of the Directors’ Box as the players did a lap of appreciation to a sparsely populated Stadium of Light after the final whistle.

Other than victory at St James’s Park, Short can take little pleasure from the campaign, nor the prospect of relying on Wigan’s giant-killing prospects tomorrow night.

The mitigation is that Sunderland have been without the integral duo of Lee Cattermole and Steven Fletcher for the run-in, plus banned pair Stephane Sessegnon and Craig Gardner.

But that is four key players missing; not 14.

This is still a squad that has mustered just five victories on their own turf all season.

Five.

A significant overhaul is badly needed and the short-term bounce created by Martin O’Neill’s successor cannot have masked that to Short.

The suggestions are that Sunderland realise as much, with the recruitment process already under way – Maritimo’s Valentin Roberge the first of several targets close to sealing moves to Wearside, providing Premier League status is retained.

But the back-to-back draws with Stoke and Southampton over the last seven days have demonstrated the thinness and inadequacies of Sunderland’s squad.

Effort isn’t the issue; quality and lack of viable options is.

Whether O’Neill shoulders the bulk of the blame for that, or – harshly – it is Short for not delving further into his pockets, Sunderland have been bereft of any depth.

The bulk of those on the bench have been effectively redundant for the last month or so, while the lack of pace in the final third is an issue which was ignored as Sunderland offloaded a then confidence-drained Fraizer Campbell in January.

Nevertheless, that didn’t excuse the miserable lack of goal threat or simple inability to keep possession yesterday.

Di Canio didn’t help himself by starting James McClean on the right again after the 24-year-old toiled so noticeably in the opening half-hour against Stoke.

Again, through no necessary fault of his own, McClean looked totally at sea – almost inevitably caught in possession whenever he predictably tried to come inside onto his favoured left foot.

It took Di Canio just 14 minutes to abandon the experiment, but the shadow of anxiety had already crept over Sunderland by that stage.

Southampton should have made more of it, even though they ensured Sunderland chased shadows through basic passing triangles.

The Black Cats were second to every ball, leggily lumbering to keep the visitors at bay, without mustering a cross, let alone a shot.

Adam Johnson should have done better from Seb Larsson’s corner on the stroke of half-time, but that would have been decidedly cruel on the Saints, who will have been cursing both Simon Mignolet’s reflexes and Rickie Lambert’s uncharacteristically wasteful finishing.

The introduction of fit-again striker Connor Wickham at the interval gave Sunderland a more natural shape, yet it was only for the five minutes or so after Phil Bardsley’s opener that the hosts ever enjoyed any midfield dominance.

Jason Puncheon’s equaliser was perfectly preventable, but Southampton deserved that as a minimum. The energy and elementary movement of Jay Rodriguez, Adam Lallana, Lambert and then Puncheon was far more eye-catching than anything Sunderland could muster.

That has been a pattern for the season though.

At times, Sunderland have looked cohesive and a potent threat, but those occasions have been sporadic. Inconsistency has been the dominant trait.

Even during Di Canio’s meagre six games in charge, he has seen that for himself – magnificent in the derby, dogged against Everton, unfortunate at Chelsea, but then wretched at Aston Villa, the first half last Monday and for sustained periods yesterday.

Still, Di Canio has managed to record eight points from his brief reign and that is a tally which the majority of supporters would surely have accepted on his appointment, despite just two draws from a run of three successive games against their relegation rivals.

While not quite the “miracle” which Di Canio labelled it yesterday, he gave Sunderland the shot in the arm when it was most needed after inheriting a situation which looked wretched.

Di Canio now deserves the required backing.

In some respects, he will have a blank canvas.

Sunderland have 25 seasoned professionals on the books, yet two of those are on loan, two are out on loan with moves that are likely to be made permanent, two will depart when their contracts expire, one is a long-term injury doubt and there will surely be two or three others allowed to leave for pastures new.

Providing Arsenal don’t succumb to a shock Emirates defeat to Wigan for a second successive year, the summer provides the welcome chance to build a side more of Di Canio’s liking in the Premier League.

Yesterday was just further evidence that the current crop has fallen laughingly short of last summer’s top 10 aspirations.

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