Sunderland take their chance and climb to fifth after superb first half goal flurry against Rochdale
Sunderland climbed to fifth in the League One table after surging into an unassailable first-half lead against Rochdale.
A brace from Lynden Gooch and an own goal from Eoghan O’Connell gave the Black Cats a three-goal lead that they never looked in danger of relinquishing.
It lifted the Black Cats to within five points of the automatic promotion positions, and they have two games-in-hand on Peterborough United, who rose to second on Tuesday night after again scoring four, this time at home to Southend United.
The race for those two positions has been increasingly competitive as a number of sides begin to find impressive consistency of both performance and results.
Sunderland knew then that this night represented a significant opportunity, with Rotherham United not in action, Portsmouth travelling to Coventry City and Wycombe Wanderers hosting Joey Barton’s Fleetwood.
Rochdale had the potential to be a tricky opponent, impressive against higher-tier opposition in the cups this season and with an away record to match Sunderland’s.
Their commitment to playing out from the back is both commendable and dangerous, and even before kick off it felt as if the game would be decided by whether they would be able to pass through a home press that has been increasingly effective and aggressive in recent weeks.
In swirling wind and the bitter cold, it was a mismatch from the off.
Sunderland quickly took control of the contest and went close two minutes in, Bailey Wright getting above his marker but heading over the bar from a Chris Maguire corner.
Brian Barry Murphy’s side were trying to settle into the contest, but were increasingly ponderous in possession, beginning to lose it regularly in dangerous positions.
Sunderland went close to an early lead after an excellent move down the right-hand side, Luke O’Nien crossing from the right and Gooch just missing as he made a good run into the centre of the box, his first-time volley wide of the far post.
Rochdale didn’t heed the warning and two minutes later they were behind.
The Black Cats again progressed down the right with ease, and this time it was Maguire who fired in a wonderful cross. Gooch had more time on this occasion and converted the simplest of finishes.
Within minutes it was two, Jimmy Ryan taking too long on the ball in the centre of the pitch and losing possession. Gooch pounced, driving forward to the edge of the area. His composure was excellent, finding Maguire on the overlap.
His cross was low across the box and though Eoghan O’Connell got their first, he could only turn the ball over his own line.
Rochdale were unable to get out of their own half, struggling for any kind of possession.
They were presented with one opening just before the half hour mark, but with Matt Done overlapping, Ian Henderson took too long on the ball and Tom Flanagan was able to make an excellent covering challenge.
That miss moved costly, Sunderland again swiftly breaking down the right. Maguire dound O’Nien in the box and though Robert Sanchez made a fine stop from the wing-back, Gooch was on hand to hammer home the rebound.
Rochdale would perhaps have considered themselves fortunate to make it to the break without any futher damage, and the interval gave them a chance to reset.
Barry-Murphy brought on experienced target man Aaron Wilbraham and that focal point at least gave them something of a focal point.
Jon McLaughlin was tested for the first time when Ryan fired from distance, but the Scot was alert and palmed clear.
The Black Cats were perhaps not quite playing with the same tempo as the first half, but did continue to stretch the play and felt they should have had a penalty when Matheson challenged Denver Hume as he burst into the box.
The game had little tempo as it meandered towards a conclusion, though Sunderland were fortunate that Henderson could only turn an effort over the crossbar as he broke free into the box with ten minutes to play.
Both sides ultimately seemed happy to settle for the three-nil scoreline, though there were one or two encouraging runs from substitute Antoine Semenyo to raise hopes about what he could have to offer in the weeks ahead.
Sunderland XI: McLaughlin; O’Nien, Willis, Wright, Flanagan, Hume; Power, Dobson; Maguire (Semenyo, 71), Gooch (Watmore, 77), Wyke (Lafferty, 85)
Subs: Burge, Ozturk, Scowen, McLaughlin
Rochdale XI: Sanchez; Matheson, McNulty, O’Connell, Norrington-Davies (Keohane, 39); Lund, Morley (Wilbraham, 50), Ryan, Dooley; Done (McLaughlin, 69), Henderson
Subs: Williams, Smith, Lynch, McShane
Bookings: Henderson, 23