Phil Smith's verdict: Toughest tests lie ahead but Sunderland have transformed our hopes for the season

Max Power stood in the sleet reflecting on the most bitter of defeats.

Sunday, 7th March 2021, 12:30 pm

Sunderland had been beaten by Shrewsbury but it felt more significant a result than just the immediate loss of three points.

The Black Cats had seized the initiative with an early goal but from there they had been outrun and outplayed. The season was in danger of drifting and Power knew it.

There would be no attempt to spin what had gone on, he said. No positives to take.

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Dion Sanderson heads Sunderland into the lead at the Stadium of Light

It's now or never, Power warned his team-mates.

The reaction on Wearside to that performance was understandably fierce. The disappointment and pessimism would have been even more acute were it not for the fact that the presence of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus gave some hope that brighter days were on the horizon.

Seven games on, the mood has indeed been transformed.

Look at the table, and the actual arithmetic has not altered all that much After that defeat Sunderland found themselves eight points adrift of the top two. Now, they are five.

Scratch beneath the surface, though, and the prospects for Lee Johnson's side have been transformed. The gap to the very top of the table has been cut by six points; a seven-point deficit to Portsmouth has become a five-point advantage.

Above all else, Sunderland have proven to both themselves and the supporters that they have every reason to consider themselves contenders.

Power embodies that.

"You can shy away from it or you can analyse it, look in the mirror and decide where you want to go from here," he had said in the biting cold of Shropshire.

"There's plenty of football left but we can't keep passing up opportunities, and we can't keep talking about how many games are left.

"For me it's a bit of now or never, the season is on a hinge where it can go one of two ways.

"You find out a lot about people and character when things like this arise.

"It's nice being a footballer when it's going well and you're getting pats on the back, so we'll see, it's a big game Saturday against a team in form and for me that's a good game to go into off the back of this."

Against Doncaster Rovers he produced a commanding display at the base of a midfield three, playing his part in a performance that across the board looked like a template for the weeks that followed.

But an injury crisis forced that template to be ripped up; Power a vocal leader as he and his team-mates have dragged themselves through a run in which they have constantly had to put square pegs in round holes.

At times he has stepped in at right back and he has even done a job on the right of a back three.

There was some significance in Johnson's post-match remarks at Shrewsbury, too. His preferred 4-2-2-2 system had not worked out and with momentum stalling, it was tempting to wonder whether a more dramatic summer overhaul would be needed for the flashes of improvement we had seen in his tenure to become something longer lasting.

The Head Coach made a point of saying he would not go down the route of claiming this wasn't his squad, his players. He still believed in the group he had, he insisted.

The win against Doncaster looked like a statement in its energy, high pressing and speed in possession.

It's the template and standard Johnson wants in the months ahead but those defensive injuries have meant he has had to adapt. The football has not always been convincing, and there have been stretches when it has certainly not been exhilarating.

There was nothing straightforward about this win over Rochdale, just as there had been plenty of hurdles to overcome against Swindon in midweek.

Brian Barry-Murphy's side sit bottom of the table but the experience of the last three years has shown that they will always be a side who offer a threat in possession.

In the first half they missed two gilt-edged chances to score, and at the stary of the second they were denied only by an excellent Lee Burge save.

The difference was a ruthlessness in both boxes.

Sunderland took their chances and in defence, there were superb contributions from Luke O'Nien, Dion Sanderson and Ollier Younger.

That was significant as for so much of the season (and particularly the early weeks of Johnson's tenure), beating the sides near the bottom of the table at the Stadium of Light has been the achilles' heel.

The sternest tests now very clearly await for Johnson and his side.

Six of their next seven league games will come against opposition currently in the top ten and so bumps in the road are inevitable. For all their strong form they are still chasing the pacemakers in the race for the top two and their indifferent form through the midwinter period means the margin for error remains razor thin.

It underlines the importance, though, of the recent run of form.

Johnson hopes that over the next week he will have senior players returning from injury and that should allow him to revert to the style that so impressively overcame Doncaster Rovers last month.

The fixtures ahead and the sheer number of points Sunderland will likely need to finish in the top makes you reluctant to make any bold predictions.

Achieving automatic promotion very clearly remains a tall order.

It’s nevertheless unquestionable that Johnson and his squad have put themselves firmly in the conversation. It wasn’t so long ago that it felt very much like wishful thinking.

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