Sunderland 3-1 Plymouth Argyle: Stunning second-half turnaround and moving show of support for Michael Beale
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Sunderland battled back from a first-half deficit to run out emphatic winners against Plymouth Argyle and reclaim their place in the top six of the Championship.
Ryan Hardie's deft chip had sent the Black Cats into the break trailing, but a brilliant display of attacking football saw them turn the contest on its head. Pierre Ekwah, Jack Clarke and Jobe Bellingham all produced superb strikes to earn the three points on what was at times a very emotional afternoon at the Stadium of Light.
Here's the story of the game and its key talking points from a Sunderland perspective...
MOVING SHOW OF SUPPORT FOR MICHAEL BEALE
Sunderland fans came together on the four-minute mark to show their support to the head coach and his family. Beale had posted on Instagram on Friday that his four-year old niece, Poppy, is fighting Leukemia and supporters at the Stadium of Light applauded throughout the fifth minute in solidarity.
Beale was visibly moved on the touchline, applauding all corners of the ground and patting his chest in thanks. Get well soon, Poppy, everyone on Wearisde is with you.
PLYMOUTH EDGE THE EARLY STAGES - AT LEAST IN TERMS OF CHANCES
Nazariy Rusyn's recall to the starting XI was no surprise but Beale also brought Patrick Roberts back into the side, meaning a rare chance for Abdoullah Ba to impress in his preferred number ten position. The initial signs were encouraging, Ba finding plenty of space to launch a couple of dangerous counters.
Plymouth, though, were the side with the early efforts on goal. Mumba almost scored inside the first minute on his return to the Stadium of Light, beating Leo Hjelde in the air at the back post but heading Mickel Miller's cross wide. Patterson then had to make a good save to deny Ryan Hardie after he was sprung clear on goal, though he appeared to be a yard offside.
SUNDERLAND EDGE THEIR WAY INTO THE CONTEST - BUT ARE CAUGHT COLD ON THE BREAK
Sunderland were playing some decent football at times, Rusyn in particular holding the ball up encouragingly well and running the channels with his typical commitment. The problem was that as so often is the case this season, Sunderland struggled to turn their possession into real chances. They didn't force a save from Conor Hazard until 25 minutes into the game, Jack Clarke's long-rage effort saved with relative ease.
Their best move of the game came ten minutes before the break, Rusyn's close-range effort blocked well after neat combination play from Hume and Roberts on the right. The hosts looked to finally be applying some concerted pressure but from the following corner, they managed to fall behind. Plymouth turned the ball over and Morgan Whittaker played an outrageously good, opportunistic first-time pass right through the heart of the pitch. Hardie had managed to stay onside as he was still just in his own half when the through ball was played, and though it looked as if he had delayed the shot too long after rounding Patterson, a delicate chip opened the scoring.
It was almost two shortly afterward, an audacious lob from his own half beating Patterson but dropping just wide of the post. Sunderland were unfortunate to be behind in terms of possession and shots at the break, but they had also created nowhere near enough and a big improvement was needed in the second half.
Plymouth also deserved credit for their performance, Gyabi and Forshaw very effective at breaking up play and feeding their dangerous players in the wide areas.
INSTANT IMPROVEMENT - AND INSTANT REWARD
Sunderland were out of the tunnel for the second half with plenty of time to spare, and their willingness to step up it up and lift the intensity yielded an instant reward. It was an excellent equaliser, a free kick right on the edge of the box that was always going to be too close to goal to get up and down over the wall. So Roberts instead laid up Ekwah, who guided a low effort into the near corner. A lovely finish, and for a while it looked as if Plymouth might buckle under the pressure of Sunderland's dominance.
The hosts had a big let off all the same when a cross from the left, Plymouth's first foray forward in the half, flew all the way in at the far post. Fortunately for Sunderland, the flag raised as a green shirt had leapt to try and head goalward from an offside position.
It proved to be a big moment in the game, Sunderland ahead just minutes later. Hume released Clarke with a stunning crossfield pass and though the space seemed to have closed for the winger, he did what he does best - cutting infield, driving past his marker and bending an effort in off the inside of the post.
BEALE SUB PAYS OFF - IMMEDIATELY
Plymouth looked unable to contain Sunderland, who were producing their best half hour of front-foot football since Beale's arrival and perhaps a good few weeks before that. The head coach opted not to let it run on and perhaps with the two games this week in mind, introduced Jobe and Rigg for Ba and Ekwah. With his first touch, Bellingham drove all the way into the Plymouth box and curled a delightful effort into the far corner. It was a fine individual strike, but one only possible because of Dan Neil's diligent work - snuffing out a hugely dangerous counter before launching one of his own. Neil was nothing short of exceptional in this second half, breaking up play and sparking good attacks.
Beale then smartly turned straight to Romaine Mundle, the circumstances perfect for his first taste of Stadium of Light football.
A QUIET END TO AN EXCELLENT AFTERNOON
The final stages of the game brought little to report. Sunderland drove into some very good areas, often denied by tactical fouls from Plymouth. Some of the fizz of the early stages of the half ebbed away but that was of no concern to Sunderland, who prevented Plymouth from making any headway in launching a comeback.
With results elsewhere falling largely in Sunderland's favour, it was a big afternoon in their season. The energy and incision they found in the second half sets the benchmark moving forward, and was a very pleasing response for Beale to a meek first 45. Opportunity knocks for a Sunderland side now back in the top six.
Sunderland AFC XI: Patterson; Hume, Ballard, O'Nien, Hjelde; Neil, Ekwah (Rigg, 64); Roberts (Mundle, 69), Ba (Jobe, 64), Clarke; Rusyn (Aouchiche, 87)
Subs: Bishop, Pembele, Hemir, Burstow, Seelt
Plymouth Argyle XI: Hazard; Phillips (Pleguezuelo, 80), Gibson, Galloway; Mumba (Sorinola, 72) Gyabi, Forshaw, Miller (Sousa, 72); Devine (Randell, 77), Whittaker, Hardie
Subs: Burton, Scarr, Edwards, Randell, Waine, Issaka
Bookings: Ba, 9 Whittaker, 24 Phillips, 33 Mumba, 43 Gyabi, 69 Sorinola, 87
Attendance: 41, 269