MATCH REPORT – Sunderland 1 City 0

The Premier League – Saturday 18th April 2009

We’re not going to do it, are we? There are, at the time writing, just three points separating us from the bottom three – a situation that fortunately didn’t worsen thanks to an awesomely inept performance by Newcastle during the construction of this gloomy report.

Not that three points looks enough anyway. With five games remaining, it’s increasingly difficult to imagine that our existing tally of 34 points will be growing significantly. Goal difference is not a friend of ours either, and the bottom three will now view us as being there for the taking.

Worst of all is how it’s all come about. Trips to Middlesbrough and Sunderland simply had to yield something. To lose both is frankly deserving of relegation. How far away last autumn now seems.

Phil Brown made four changes to the City team that travelled to Sunderland, swapping Myhill for Duke, bringing in Boateng as captain for the day in place of the banned Ashbee and withdrawing Mendy and Barmby for Kilbane and Marney. It meant the Tigers lined up thus: Myhill; Ricketts, Turner, Zayatte, Dawson; Marney, Boateng (c), Kilbane, Geovanni; Fagan, Manucho.

It was a puzzling formation however, with Kilbane playing centrally while Marney was charged with providing width on the right, an area Fagan naturally drifted into as well. It was a scrappy opening to the game as Sunderland attacked the end housing the few thousand City fans in attendance. The home side nearly created an opening when a through ball to Djibril Cisse required a very alert intervention by Boaz Myhill. He repeated the trick a minute later, and seemed to have spent his recent time out of the side practicing the art of leaving his line. Promising.

Geovanni had City’s first effort on goal of the afternoon midway through the half, a volley from twenty-five yards sending the ball high into the blustery Teeside air and downwards, creating a most extraordinary parabola; sadly Geo’s attempt to confound the laws of physics were not quite successful and the ball went a yard or two over.

It prompted an improvement in City’s play, and shortly after Geovanni’s attempt came a good move fashioned on the right and culminating in a Kilbane header that was well saved by Craig Gordon. An excellent atmosphere was being generated by both sets of fans, Sunderland’s being among the best we’ve seen so far this season, and it was being aided by a spell in which the football became bitty and the hostilities growing in intensity. Michael Turner was booked, harshly, by Mike Dean for distracting Gordon while he attempted to release the ball upfield.

Kilbane was then given a rather more straightforward caution for a lousy challenge that felled Andy Reid as Sunderland sought to reassert themselves in the game. However, with three minutes of first half injury time almost up, disaster struck. A routine headed clearance was botched in the City area, giving Sunderland a second chance to send the ball in. It came to Cisse, unmarked on account of being some distance offside – his downward header was clinical, the linesman failed to do his job, and City fell behind.

There was no time before the interval for the Tigers to implement an immediate recovery, and despite playing reasonably well we trailed again. We were still suffering the effects at the start of the second half, as only a good save by Myhill denied the superb Cisse after less than a minute.

Cisse was everywhere, showing just what a difference a good striker can make to an ordinary side – and before the half was even five minutes old he had the ball in the goal again, though fortunately this time the linesman was paying attention and an offside flag swiftly hoisted.

Back came City, playing with spring from midfield – Kilbane was lively while Boateng was anchoring things, though his overall display was dented by an obvious lack of match fitness and some disappointing distribution. However, he nearly made this all irrelevant with a blistering volley from twenty yards that scorched past the diving Gordon and whizzed a foot wide of the left hand post.

Sunderland were increasingly happy to play on the break as City began to enjoy real territorial and possession advantages, and they nearly made this tactic pay dividends when a thrusting break from deep saw Reid have a clear sight on goal, however he slashed at the shot and it flew over.

Phil Brown made his first change of the afternoon with 22 minutes remaining, bringing off the disappointing Marney in favour of Caleb Folan, the latter moving into attack with Manucho and Fagan dropping into an orthodox right-wing role. Folan nearly scored just after coming on with a header than dropped just the wrong side of Gordon’s post with the Sunderland keeper looking beaten.

Geovanni’s afternoon of sadly peripheral involvement was curtailed early when Bernard Mendy was summoned to replace him and promptly produced one of the more witless substitute cameos, being extremely fortunate to avoid a red card for affecting to headbutt Richardson and then spending the rest of the game getting just about every single decision wrong.

Barmby had also come on for the unsurprisingly tiring Boateng, and he produced a few neat touches as City piled forwards in search of an equaliser that our general play had deserved – however, Manucho, Mendy, Folan and Fagan is not a quartet blessed with particularly potent shooting ability, though they failed to help themselves with a bitterly frustrating tendency to send crosses awry and final balls to opponents.

And so we lost, via Sunderland smacking our post in injury time. We didn’t deserve to, but then we rarely looked like scoring once we fell behind – to a goal that shouldn’t have stood, of course. Phil Brown shook all of his players’ hands as they trudged off and showily applauded the travelling City fans, and we traipsed out of the Stadium of Light to ponder just how we’re going to get out of this.

We very well may not. Middlesbrough’s four points in the past week has put them back in touch, while our situation is now so grave that we’re thankful to Stoke for beating Blackburn – a demoralising situation to be in. Potsmouth have clambered to near safety, Stoke have long gone, Sunderland are probably one more win from being out of it, and only Newcastle’s continuing travails offer much hope. Liverpool and Villa next – by the time Stoke visit on May 9th, we could be in the bottom three. It’s been a sobering week.  (AD)