Sunderland 0 Wolves 0

Nicklas Bendtner
Nicklas Bendtner
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“Do not go gentle into that good night.

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

AS a rallying call to mortal man, Dylan Thomas’s dramatic words have never been bettered.

They call for defiance in the face of inevitability and how Sunderland could have done with that sort of spirit in a season which offers them little in the way of glory or gain, other than the vague objective of finishing as high up the table as possible.

Had Lee Cattermole been playing, it might have been different – rage is the skipper’s stock in trade.

But he had at last succumbed to the battle of wounded knee and without his driving force, Sunderland’s players simply lacked the fire in their bellies needed to overcome opponents whose tame efforts in the opening hour of this game showed exactly why they are heading back to the Championship this season.

It was not that Sunderland’s players were not trying to win the game. They just lacked a focus and too often found themselves on different wavelengths.

Cattermole and David Vaughan were the two men left out of the team beaten 4-0 by Everton on its last outing as Kieran Richardson returned at left-back and Nicklas Bendtner, recovered from a back strain, took his place in Sunderland’s preferred 4-4-2 formation.

Wolves, too, went for a positive formation as manager Terry Connor aimed to ensure a side which had lost its last seven games would at least go down fighting in front of the small group of fans who had made the long journey to back them.

There was little evidence, though, of any fight in his side in the first half.

Wolves looked demoralised, as though they were awaiting the inevitable and Sunderland set out to oblige.

Seb Larsson tested out the home defence with a teasing free kick in the third minute, saw a shot blocked in the fourth and produced two dangerous deliveries from the resulting corners.

The ball fell to Larsson again after a slick move involving Phil Bardsley and Bendtner down the right flank in the eighth minute, but the Swede thrashed his shot wide.

The half-chances were starting to mount up for Sunderland and in reply Wolves produced the first shot on target, Simon Mignolet diving low to his left to palm away Anthony Forde’s speculative shot in the 10th minute.

Sunderland should have scored just after the quarter-hour when Craig Gardner released Larsson down the right.

The Swede squared to Sessegnon infield, who teed up the ball for James McClean on the left wing only for the Irishman to drive a grass-cutter inches the wrong side of Wayne Hennessey’s near post.

It was their best chance of the opening 45 minutes as Sunderland laboured to produce any sort of precision in their final pass and their finishing.

Stephane Sessegnon was the exception, the little front man all movement and invention and if Sunderland were to get ahead in the game, he was favourite to be involved.

He won a free kick in a dangerous position in the 21st minute and forced a flapping save from Wayne Hennessey with a turn and shot from distance on the half-hour.

In between, McClean was unlucky to see his shot blocked after Sessegnon had found him with a fine pass, the Irishman’s shot bouncing up into the gloves of the grateful Hennessey, who had already committed himself.

Sunderland should have done better against opponents who barely threatened before the break.

But too often passes went astray or were under or over-hit and in front of goal their finishing was disappointing.

Phil Bardsley might have broken the deadlock unexpectedly in the 43rd minute with a powerful long-range shot which did not miss by much, but instead, fans were left to wait for the second half for hopes of an improvement.

Sessegnon gave them hope with a fine run and blocked cross which brought a corner in the 48th minute, but Larsson overhit his centre.

A couple of minutes later, when Sessegnon had another shot blocked, Wolves fans began to sense they were finally going to get something out of the game and began chanting: “We’re going to win 0-0”.

But they might have hoped for better, Forde striking a good shot from left of goal in the 58th minute which Mignolet got down well to at his near post.

And then Wolves created a great chance on the hour from a brilliant back-heel by Steven Fletcher into the path of Sylvan Ebank-Blake, who screwed a great chance wide from 12 yards.

Had Fletcher been playing up front for Sunderland, the Wearsiders might have won, for while the Scot looked committed, opposite number Nicklas Bendtner was having one of those days where he did not look interested

The Dane’s work was done on either flank or deep in his own half and although he did well defensively, Sunderland needed him to be in and around the Wolves penalty area throughout.

The home team was not to create a really good chance until the 72nd minute and – just as in the first-half – it fell to McClean.

Sessegnon and Bendtner got the ball forward before it was pulled back to Gardner, whose cross from the right reached the Irish winger at the far post and his stooping header was saved by Hennessey’s legs, the keeper gathering at the second attempt.

It said much for the paucity of Sunderland’s play that the biggest cheer of the afternoon came in the 78th minute when striker Fraizer Campbell was introduced.

The last 10 minutes brought more attempts on goal than the preceding 80 as both sides worked hard to pinch all three points.

Mingolet produced the save of the game to keep Sunderland on level terms in the 81st minute after Fletcher glanced a left-wing cross from Jarvis goalwards on the six-yard box and the keeper made a reflex save, parrying the ball clear from what looked a goal all the way.

Wolves had not kept a clean sheet since August and as Sunderland fans know from their own relegation battles, a losing team can contrive new ways to throw away matches.

It looked as thought that might be the case right at the death when Sessegnon split the visitors’ defence with a diagonal ball from the right which found Seb Larsson on the edge of the six-yard box.

But the Swede, who was out of luck all afternoon, struck the ball with his weaker left foot and, in the miss of the afternoon, it ballooned over the bar.

Though the point gained took Sunderland back into the top half of the table, this was always two points dropped for the Wearsiders.

The defence can take credit for securing a draw, particularly Mignolet and his two centre-halves.

But in terms of going forward, Sunderland did not make enough chances and the ones they did, they could not take.

On the quiet, this is becoming an issue for Sunderland – they have scored only once in their last five games.

More compelling, though, is the need to rediscover that inner spirit of determination and urgency that comes from a shared and clear goal – a sharpness that they had previously.

Too many minds seemed ever-so-slightly distracted at the weekend.

Even the manager admitted his thoughts had wandered a little in the morning in terms of what might have been, had his side’s earlier momentum been maintained.

“I would have loved to have been at the FA Cup semi-final instead of Everton,” he admitted. “I cast a few envious glances at the game in the morning – it would have been nice.

“That’s where we want to go again.”

O’Neill could hardly have been more fully focused for the game itself, of course. The sight of Everton in the last four will only have served to motivate him more.

Some of his players, though, perhaps struggle for that same sense of purpose.

Terry Connor, of course, will be telling his Wolves players that all four of their remaining games are cup finals.

Sunderland need to find a way of similarly motivating their players in these last few dead rubbers of the season.