Sunderland’s defence key to inspired show

Sunderland player argue with referee Phil Dowd after he awards a penalty to Manchester City.
Sunderland player argue with referee Phil Dowd after he awards a penalty to Manchester City.
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IT seems an odd thing to say on a day when Sunderland conceded three goals, but defensive resilience was the key to them becoming the first team all season to leave the Etihad undefeated.

Sunderland players could point to – and some did – the fact that all three Manchester City goals had elements of good fortune attached to them.

City’s first was a penalty, questionably awarded.

Their second flashed past a temporarily unsighted Simon Mignolet and, for their third, the keeper was equally luckless when Aleksandar Kolarov’s shot from range went through Phil Bardsley’s feet when the Belgian had been expecting the block.

But, overall, Sunderland excelled defensively and increasingly City were cutting frustrated figures before Balotelli’s second goal gave them the head of steam, and crowd backing, to bring them back into the game.

Prior to that, though, City had found themselves blocked all afternoon in their efforts to play through Sunderland.

Martin O’Neill had mentioned before the game that City like to play in a similar style to Barcelona.

The Blues’ best game this season has been about all fancy footwork and quicksilver passing in attack – eschewing the traditional approach of the English game which involves getting it wide and getting crosses into the box.

City manager Mancini favours short passes and clever movement to unlock defences. Only when all else fails does he tend to turn to Sunderland-born Adam Johnson to give his side width.

The differences in approach are underlined by the fact that the player with most crosses for City going into the weekend’s game was Gael Clichy, with 31. Seb Larsson, by contrast, has 97 for Sunderland.

What happened on Saturday, though, was the irresistible force which has been City at the Etihad, came up against the immoveable object – Sunderland’s resolve.

If ever a team were up for this challenge, Sunderland were.

And City must have surprised by the sheer tenacity and energy of their opponents.

It would be interesting to see the Opta statistics on just how much distance Larsson and James McClean covered on the flanks.

But the key battle lay in the centre of the park where Lee Cattermole was dominant against man-mountain Yaya Toure and Craig Gardner was an equally aggressive foil for the skipper – the two stopping so many potential attacks at source.

At the heart of defence, Michael Turner and Matt Kilgallon’s partnership flourished against the two strikers they would have preferred to play against in City’s all-star quintet.

Instead of the nimbleness and invention of Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez, Sunderland were up against the bluster and bludgeon of Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli – a pairing that City have used four times this season and not won a single game with.

They were meat and drink for Turner and Kilgallon’s strengths and it was only when the not fully-fit Tevez came on and started to drop deep to pick up possession that they were really stretched.

When City did go for width, through Micah Richards in the first half and Johnson in the second, they found stand-in left-back Jack Colback in superlative mood, putting in a genuinely terrific defensive performance.

With defence-unlocker-in-chief David Silva now woefully out of form, Sunderland were able to resist pretty much everything that was thrown at them.

And the attitude of O’Neill’s men was spot on.

Rather than licking their wounds and feeling sorry for themselves after the damp squib of a cup performance against Everton, they relished the challenge.

So solid were they, that they created the platform for their attackers to take the lead on the half-hour.

And so confident had they become by half-time that they were able to overcome the disappointment of a penalty goal just before half-time to regain the lead seconds before the break.

Ultimately, only fatigue cost Sunderland as the effects of their demanding midweek tie caught up them and City threw the proverbial kitchen sink at Sunderland.

If Bendtner had gone for precision rather than power from Sunderland’s last meaningful attack than City would have been buried at 4-1.

If the tired legs had been able to close down Balotelli or Kolarov more effectively in the dying stages they might have got away with all three points.

As it was, that defensive unit, coupled with the tremendous support given to it across the middle of the park, ensured that they were the only team this season to leave the Etihad undefeated.