Phil Smith's verdict: Making sense of Sunderland's mixed emotions and where a positive weekend leaves them

Lee Johnson's emotions were clearly mixed and in that sense, he spoke for most of Wearside as he picked through the bones of Sunderland's 1-1 draw with Peterborough United.

Tuesday, 6th April 2021, 12:00 pm

First and foremost, the form of his team in recent weeks has transformed the mood and as such, there is an obvious tinge of disappointment when the result is anything less than three points.

Such has been their ruthlessness of late, hopes were high both within the camp and outside it that this would be the day of the great leap forward.

It didn't quite pan out that way and the slight sense of an opportunity missed was heightened by the fact that in the closing moments, the Black Cats had almost gone and snatched it.

Sign up to our Sunderland AFC newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Christy Pym is beaten by Aiden McGeady's superb free kick

Max Power's cross was turned onto the post by Frankie Kent and when Aiden McGeady broke to the byline a few moments later, you wouldn't if this was going to be one of the defining moments of the season. As it was, Peterborough were able to clear their lines just before the cross reached Aiden O'Brien, and Sunderland were forced to settle for a point.

It was a point that had looked unlikely twenty minutes earlier and that was another layer to consider in the aftermath.

For much of the second half Sunderland had been on the ropes. Johnson felt Callum McFadzean had been fouled in the build up to Siriki Dembele's goal but either side of that, Peterborough looked the side more likely.

When McGeady stepped up to produce that stunning free kick, the home side would undoubtedly have felt as if a major opportunity was passing them by.

This was a good point, both in the context of the game itself and the wider picture of the race for the top two.

Sunderland came into the Easter weekend with comfortably the toughest fixture list of the three teams currently leading the way, and their situation at the end of it remains strong.

Hull City have extended their lead at the top, but their toughest fixtures await them and given that the Black Cats still have to face them before the season is over, overhauling the deficit remains very much an achievable goal.

In both cames Johnson's team fought back from going behind to earn a result, and their game-in-hand means that they can focus on their own business as they look to go past Peterborough between now and the end of the season.

It was an afternoon in which a point was a result no one was looking for; but all could see would not represent a bad return.

Johnson's selection was unquestionably geared towards winning and for much of the first half, his bold decisions were largely vindicated.

Conditions were challenging, swirling winds and an extremely bouncy pitch making it extremely difficult to control possessions for long periods.

The Sunderland head coach paired Ross Stewart alongside Charlie Wyke and for much of the opening exchanges, a more direct approach worked.

Johnson's side spent much of the game in Peterborough's half and the key to it was their dominance in midfield; Grant Leadbitter and Carl Winchester excellent in their positioning and reading of the game.

Peterborough's approach seemed strangely passive, but some slackness in the Sunderland backline gave them a chance to grow into the game as the half developed.

For the most part it was a tight, tense game between two sides acutely aware of the stakes.

When Johnson was asked afterwards if he still felt it was a positive weekend for his side despite his obvious disappointment at not landing the win, the head coach was emphatic in his response.

A superb unbeaten run was extended, and the depth of the squad had again allowed him to make crucial changes at a vital moment of the game.

Perhaps the most heartening sight came just moments after Denver Hume returned to the field for the first time since Johnson's very first afternoon in charge.

Barely a minute had passed when the youngster found himself under pressure from the Peterborough press. In his own half, his instinctive move was to drive forward and in doing so, he left his marker trailing in his wake.

Even in this brief cameo, it was clear that Johnson now has another crucial weapon in his armoury. An attacking threat from deep, and a player who can revel in the space McGeady creates.

In the end this was not quite the exhilarating afternoon Sunderland had hoped for, but the contrast from a Easter Monday clash here two years ago could hardly have been more stark.

For one, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic means that this time around, the number of games left means it remains far too soon to be talking of defining games in the race for the top two.

Two years ago Matt Godden's late equaliser knocked the wind out of the sails of a side who had been stumbling for a few weeks; a psychological blow from which Sunderland never really looked like recovering.

This time around they are in good form with those defining fixtures still ahead of them.

There is strength in depth and a promising knack of finding ways to win points, whether the general performance level is strong or indifferent. More often than not it has been the former.

This promotion race is going right to the wire, and Sunderland remain in a very strong position.

A message from the Football Clubs Editor

Our aim is to provide you with the best, most up-to-date and most informative Sunderland AFC coverage 365 days a year.

This depth of coverage costs, so to help us maintain the high-quality reporting that you are used to, please consider taking out a subscription to our new sports-only package here.

Your support is much appreciated. Richard Mennear, Football Clubs Editor