Phil Smith's verdict: Inside a crucial and different Sunderland win - with yet more major injury concerns

This was one of those afternoons when at some stage, the 2,561 who had made their way to Cambridge must have asked themselves, why?

Sunday, 28th November 2021, 12:00 pm

Tuesday night had been a bruising encounter even if the end result had only been a draw.

The cautious optimism of that win over Ipswich Town dissipated into the bracing winter air as one-man and one-goal to the good, Sunderland conspired to fritter away the most glaring of opportunities.

Lee Johnson had spoken not so long ago of a club retreating into a painful cycle of midwinter frustration. This felt like it’s full realisation.

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Are we really going to have to do this again?

Onto Abbey Stadium then, with some weariness and probably some trepidation.

Freezing temperatures, howling winds, driving rain, sleet, snow, you name it.

The sense coming into this game was that Sunderland needed to deliver a performance.

Sunderland celebrate a crucial goal at Cambridge United

To produce at least some of that zip and fluidity of some of those early-season wins, to settle nerves and rebuild some of that trust that had just frayed away at the edges a little of late.

That disappeared the moment Storm Arwen began to drift south.

This would be about surviving; finding a way to win.

Sunderland delivered a performance in the end, but this was one that showcased a resilience and a willingness to dig deep.

SIgnificant, perhaps, given some of the brutal awaydays that supporters have endured in this season of extremes.

At the end Sunderland’s players punched the air, and took in the rapturous reception from the travelling army.

It would take some time for fingers and toes to thaw, but the return of a bit of belief and hope was some consolation.

Make no mistake, this was League One in its purest form.

Midway through the first half, Cambridge United goalkeeper Dimitar Mitov attempted to find his target man with a long punt upfield, only to watch on in horror as it blew almost all the way back to him. Under pressure, his right back felt he had no choice but to simply volley it out of the ground.

Stop start, frenetic, physical.

Johnson’s side got the first break, winning the coin toss and correctly deciding that the right approach would be to switch ends.

With the ferocious wind on their backs, they could press Cambridge and force them into playing long balls that were only ever going to come straight back.

There may well have been a hint of fortune when Alex Pritchard’s corner flew directly in, but Johnson insisted that it was something they had talked about immediately before the game and the attacking midfielder consistently troubled the home defence through the first half.

Hard to say it was a fluke, when he almost repeated the feat fifteen minutes later at the other post.

It was not all one-way traffic, for sure.

The evergreen Wes Hoolahan was producing some quite glorious quality in tight spaces, getting his side up the pitch and into dangerous areas.

Sunderland’s half-time lead was deserved, though.

The second goal was excellent, neat build-up play down the right flank and a stunning strike from Nathan Broadhead.

The Black Cats had found a better tempo than they had managed for many of their recent games, and looked more threatening when they broke towards the final third.

The question was whether that one-goal advantage would be enough, now that the conditions would be with Cambridge and significantly, worsening by the minute.

Sunderland made some important adjustments.

Thorben Hoffmann kicked flatter than his opposite number, keeping the ball away from the worst of the wind and helping to relieve some pressure.

The Black Cats tried to keep it down where they could and most importantly, they kept the set pieces out of their net.

Hoffmann did well, but was aided by some big headers from Ross Stewart in the eye of the storm, and some excellent last-gasp blocks from his defence in front of him.

There was a spell where it looked as if Cambridge might level, but Sunderland rode it out and by the end, Cambridge boss Mark Bonner admitted his side had run out of answers.

Sunderland defended their box with an aggression that has often eluded them this season, and to that end it felt like a step forward.

Back on track?

Few will be getting carried away.

Conditions as bad as this make drawing sweeping judgements about performances, whether individually or collectively, a fool’s errand.

Sunderland, and Johnson, have though given themselves a chance to start building some real momentum.

Seven points from nine this reflects a decent return even if the play has not always been convincing (and in Tuesday’s case, quite the opposite), and the Black Cats now have a run of three league games on the spin.

A platform built, if not quite a great leap forward.

Injuries, too, continue to cast a long shadow.

Sunderland had already lost Aiden McGeady to a long-term injury earlier this week, and that was compounded on Friday when a surgeon confirmed that Luke O’Nien would be able to put off dealing with a troublesome shoulder issue no longer.

He too is now facing three months on the sidelines, and potential three times that in the worst-case scenario.

It somewhat summed up Sunderland’s recent woe that Corry Evans was forced to withdraw from the starting XI moments before kick off, leaving Johnson with only six substitutes, two of those being primarily U23 players.

They dealt with that switch well, Lynden Gooch superb at wing-back and Carl Winchester tenacious in central midfield.

Leon Dajaku, too, coped with a new brief at left wing-back relatively well.

That offered some hope from the weeks ahead, but it is hard to imagine the complete lack of orthodox full-back options not catching up with Sunderland at some stage before the January window opens.

Optimism will be cautious, then.

But that is, in itself, a start.

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