Phil Smith's verdict: Making sense of Sunderland's challenging night and the interesting comments that followed

The road was bumpy but in the end, Sunderland got just about to where they needed to be.

This extraordinary, nerve-shredding race for a top-six place heads to its inevitable final-day conclusion and Alex Neil's side know that if they win, they will get over the line.

That, given all he inherited in the early days of February, is not a bad result.

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"In terms of excitement for the neutrals watching, it must be really exciting because you literally could not write a script like it," Neil said after the 1-1 draw with Rotherham.

Sunderland celebrate Rotherham United's late own goal

"The same goal difference, points, they’re playing them to stay up. It’s incredible.

"We’ve just got to take care of what we’ve got to take care of. We’ve done extremely well and put ourselves in a very good position and as with every game, it’s down to us.”

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That assessment would be shared by an increasingly upbeat Sunderland fanbase but what was interesting about this game was that for perhaps the first time since Neil took charge, the prevailing view on the contest perhaps differed from that of the head coach.

Neil insisted his side had been worthy of their late equaliser and perhaps the goal itself reflected the wider debate. For sure there was a touch of fortune as Michael Ihiekwe headed into his own goal, but then you could also argue that the delivery from Jack Clarke was excellent and the run from Ross Stewart just beyond the defender played a part in forcing the error.

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That this was not Sunderland at their most fluent was unarguable; after all they did not register a shot on target throughout the game.

Yet Neil insisted that this was never going to be an open or fluent game, admitting that while enthused by the 5-1 win over Cambridge United he felt it would be a 'nightmare' for this one in terms of lifting expectation.Neil's selections are obsessively tailored towards the opposition strengths, his preparation and analysis extensive. Rotherham, he explained, are the best pressing side in the division. The better footballing teams have invariably lost to them this season, he added. When they have fallen short, it has been against teams who have won the midfield battle and stood up to the physical challenge.

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That was the root of his contentious calls, dropping Elliot Embleton despite saying his performance on Saturday had been 'sensational'. It was a team designed to go toe-to-toe with its opposition.

Whether it worked or not is open to debate. After an even twenty minutes Rotherham looked by far the sharper after the goal, quicker to second balls and forcing Sunderland's backline to cough up possession with long balls. It felt as if the hosts were lacking composure, a player capable of getting hold of the ball in midfield, that they were trying to play a game for which their opposition were better suited. Neil's not unreasonable argument was that it was his side's failure to deal a set piece, which was a key focus of both his selection and his pre-match preparation, that turned the tide initially.

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And while for much of the game it did feel as if Rotherham were the more likely, then it should be said that the vast majority of their good chances undoubtedly came from Dan Barlaser's excellent corners.

The final half an hour of the game represented either frustration or vindication, depending on your perspective. Sunderland moved the ball quicker and asked more questions with Alex Pritchard and Embleton on the pitch. Neil said he had always expected this, when Rotherham began to tire a little and would no longer be able to snap and snarl in midfield with the same intensity and effectiveness.

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It was not for no reason, too, that Paul Warne said afterwards that he would not enjoy the prospect of facing Neil's side over a play-off semi final.

For all they had defended resolutely for the most part it was a challenging, draining night for his side.

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And when Warne's comments were put to Neil afterwards the head coach got to the heart of what he has achieved in the last couple of months.

This was another night in which defensive injuries limited his options and there were times as a result when his unit was understandably exposed.

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But in a fierce Stadium of Light atmosphere they found a way. It may have been substance over style and perhaps in the future that debate will be more fierce and regular, yet the bottom line was that the result edged them closer to where they needed to be.

“When you see that goal tonight, the place erupted didn’t it? That’s not common, certainly at this level," Neil said.

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“With that type of momentum, fanbase, backing behind us, there are very few teams that have got that. I think when you are an opposing team, that naturally is daunting isn’t it?

“What we’ve managed to do, and I’m delighted with the fans and their response, is get the fans back on side because I remember my first two games here, it certainly wasn’t like tonight.

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"To get it back to this sort of level where they are backing the team and they are right behind is great for the players, the fans and the club.

"So we’re delighted in terms of where we find ourselves."

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Neil's ability to contain the opposition and cover some key gaps in his own squad has been central to getting his side in this position, where their promotion fate remains firmly in their own hands. This was far from convincing at times but beyond question Sunderland look tougher, more resilient and more capable of finding a way of finding some way these tense encounters than before the head coach arrived.

For Neil, for now, that is enough.