Chris Young’s match analysis: Flair apparent at last for Sunderland

Adam Johnson sends Willy Caballero the wrong way for Sunderland's penalty leveller at 2-2
Adam Johnson sends Willy Caballero the wrong way for Sunderland's penalty leveller at 2-2
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FRANK LAMPARD raced past the assembled media with his famous other half on his arm, sporting a wide smile.

Despite netting the winner, he wasn’t in the mood to stop and chat after deciding to postpone the delights of the Big Apple for the drizzle of Manchester.

It was perhaps inevitable that he would grab the winner after Manchester City’s legal department managed to find a way to navigate around the Premier League rulebook for the England international to feature.

Neither it was a surprise that a Yaya Toure screamer changed the entire complexion of proceedings and broke Sunderland’s defensive masterclass.

Let’s face it, it’s not the first time that’s happened.

Likewise, there was no shock at Sunderland’s back-line proving they can frustrate even the best of sides with their impeccable defensive shape.

The New Year didn’t necessarily herald a new dawn at the Etihad, where there were several predictable, familiar sights on show in a game which consisted of two polar opposite halves.

But there was a major, noticeable fresh sight – some attacking impetus and dynamism from Sunderland.

Forget almost an hour of drab, defensive work from the Black Cats. It was inevitable that Gus Poyet’s side would set out in that manner and try to make the most of the odd counter-attack.

After all, it’s been their great strength this season and for those first 57 minutes they did it superbly, before Toure’s stunner.

The defeat can somewhat be overlooked too.

No disgrace stems from defeat against the Premier League champions, particularly when they were denied a cricket score during a rampant final 15 minutes after a string of superb saves from Costel Pantilimon.

Anyone losing the plot after a 3-2 defeat at the Etihad, when Sunderland fought back from two goals down, needs to have a serious look in the mirror.

No, the most interesting – and encouraging – aspect of yesterday’s game was some welcome attacking tempo from Sunderland.

Admittedly, it’s those occasions when Sunderland are facing a well-drilled, bottom half outfit when they often struggle to find the breakthrough – last weekend’s stalemate against 10-man Aston Villa being a prime example.

But the manner in which Sunderland played going forwards in the last half-hour, when City had threatened to coast through until the final whistle, should give some heart for what is to come in 2015.

Emanuele Giaccherini made the significant difference; looking far more comfortable in possession than any of his Sunderland team-mates had done earlier in the game and actually introducing a splash of pace into the Black Cats’ stodgy approach play.

City gave him the room to operate, and there remains that elusive question of the Italian international’s best position, but the 29-year-old undoubtedly offers that attacking midfield threat which is scarce elsewhere in Sunderland’s ranks.

Adam Johnson had shown flashes and worked tirelessly at his former club, but he was cutting a lone furrow.

Will Buckley made no inroads into City’s defences whatsoever, while Jordi Gomez’s touch was dreadful and he looked out of gas after the hectic festive schedule.

Giaccherini was not alone in making an impression from the bench though.

Ricky Alvarez may not be the best back-tracker – Gael Clichy given acres for City’s second and third goals – yet his run in the build-up to Sunderland’s penalty was sparkling stuff.

That’s why Sunderland brought the Argentine from Inter Milan.

Finding places for him, and particularly Giaccherini, is a conundrum which Poyet has to solve to boost Sunderland’s obvious attacking woes.

However, when Lee Cattermole or Liam Bridcutt are back fit, does there need to be a place for Jack Rodwell in the starting XI too?

After the telling snub of being left out of the entire squad at Aston Villa, Rodwell was excellent at his former stomping ground; producing a couple of crunching challenges on Yaya Toure and Samir Nasri, making telling interceptions, passing the ball well and netting his second in Sunderland colours.

It was more like it from the big-money summer signing. Maybe, now after knocking off the rust from his two largely inactive years at the Etihad, the 23-year-old just needs a decent run.

It’s a tough balancing job for Poyet because he doesn’t want the necessary attacking improvement to come at the expense of defensive solidity.

Until Toure’s goal changed the game, Sunderland were superb at the back with their defensive shape.

City simply went nowhere, other than down blind alleys.

Other than a couple of long-rangers and a mad scramble from a short corner, Pantilimon’s goal just didn’t look threatened until Toure’s rocket.

It’s been the great improvement from the Black Cats so far this season and is perhaps too easily overlooked after the often slapstick defending of the last campaign. However, it didn’t make for a great spectacle. Those first 57 minutes were turgid stuff.

Six goals inside 16 minutes provided a stark contrast, with the only regret of a thrilling period of play being the softness of Lampard’s winner after the 35-year-old was given too much space by Wes Brown and did what he does best.

That old adage about being vulnerable after scoring hit Sunderland hard, just when they needed to rediscover their defensive solidity from the first half.

Again, it was a case of what might have been over this festive programme.

Sunderland could – and perhaps should – have beaten Hull and Aston Villa, and then conceivably come away with a point from the Etihad. What a difference those seven points would have made.

But with Lee Cattermole, Liam Bridcutt, Anthony Reveillere and Patrick van Aanholt all likely to be back in the fold when Sunderland return to Premier League action against Liverpool in eight days time, the Black Cats’ prospects should be boosted.

Van Aanholt’s comeback, in particular, is a significant moment.

Sunderland have missed the pace, attacking ambition and natural left foot of the Dutch international. It has been one of the reasons why they have struggled for goals over the last two months.

But so, too, has been a bit of guile in midfield.

Giaccherini and Alvarez have got it and proved – particularly the former – that they can do it against the best the Premier League has to offer.

If Poyet can find an answer to using them more regularly in the starting XI, then the heartening signs at the Etihad may well have more lasting repercussions.

MANCHESTER CITY: Caballero, Zabaleta, Mangala, Demichelis, Clichy, Toure, Fernandinho, Nasri (Kolarov 85), Silva (Milner 90), Navas, Jovetic (Lampard 70). Subs not used: Hart, Sagna, Sinclair, Boyata. Booked: Nasri (51), Zabaleta (71)

SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon, Vergini (Coates 78), Jones, Brown, O’Shea, Rodwell, Larsson, Gomez (Giaccherini 58), Johnson, Buckley (Alvarez 65), Wickham. Subs not used: Fletcher, Cabral, Altidore, Mannone. Booked: Jones (17), Larsson (34), Brown (88)

Attendance: 45,367. Ref: Roger East