Games turn in fractions of a second, more so at this rarefied level. They pivot on decisions made so quickly that the player taking them has no time to compute their impact, they’re simply the product of years of training and that individual’s innate instinct.
So what turned this game? We know the moment – Wes Brown’s foul on Shane Long that brought about his inevitable dismissal. What caused it? Many will cite Phil Bardsley’s errant pass that gifted Long the ball. Others will question whether Brown really needed to make that tackle. We submit that those errors, while significant, are not the real reason.
It was what Shane Long did. He didn’t seek to introduce a team-mate into an unexpected foray. When he reached the area he didn’t attempt a trick. He simply collected possession, turned and ran as quickly as he could. That directness, coupled with his fearsome pace, instantly wrought havoc. You can’t teach predatory instincts, that instant desire to head goalwards at maximum pace. It’s within. And when Long made that decision, Sunderland were – after just three minutes – heading to a very bad place.
Which is unlike them of late. Under the combustible Paulo di Canio, they looked likely relegation candidates, a perception that Gus Poyet has taken some time to alter. Now they’re out of the bottom three and heading to a League Cup final. Quite a turnaround.
It was therefore a match between a form side and a side with a single Premier League away win all season, and one they’d have fancied. For City, an obviously tough assignment, but with an awful lot left to do, a match we had to target for victory.
That need for victory persuaded Steve Bruce to start both of his shiny new acquisitions, Long and Nikica Jelavić, as City lined up: Harper; Rosenior, McShane, Davies, Figueroa; Elmohamady, Huddlestone, Livermore, Meyler; Long, Jelavić.
So, not only an ex-Sunderland boss but also three former Mackems on the pitch for City, who themselves had a brace of ex-City loanees in Vito Mannone and Jozy Altidore.
Analysing the portion of the game that was XI v XI need not detain us long. City began the game attacking the couple of thousand away fans high up in the stadium and passed the ball around neatly. Then came Bardsley’s brainstorm, Long’s ruthless capitalising upon it, and when Mike Jones flourished a red for Brown’s hacking down of the City forward, there was not a single murmur of dissent.
Indeed, Sunderland were probably relieved that Mr Jones correctly spotted that the foul was outside the area; given that Long tumbled in the area it’d have been tempting for him to award a penalty. As it was, City had a free kick about 18.00001 yards out that Huddlestone slammed around the wall, but was well pouched by Mannone.
A breathless opening that completely floored Sunderland. Their excellent recent form may have suggested a rapid opening from the home side was in the offing, but Brown’s dismissal completely wrecked those plans. Instead, City dominated both possession and territory, thoughtfully switching the ball from wing to wing, waiting for gaps to open up and, with so much time ahead, intelligently declining to make rash decisions.
It was all too much for Gus Poyet, who withdrew Fabio Borini for Santiago Vergini after 12 minutes in a bid to shore Sunderland’s weakened defence up. City’s domination of possession was almost absolute, and on 16 minutes we finally led.
A cross from the right was deflected into the path of Livermore, unmarked and about 15 yards from goal – he attempted to sidefoot the ball in but Mannone alertly tipped it over. The danger wasn’t over, and when Huddlestone’s corner was weakly headed out by Altidore the ball once more fell to Livermore. This effort was a little more scuffed, but it bounced through to Long, who flicked the ball past his marker and beyond Mannone. Joyous celebrations wracked the away end and we began to suspect this may prove to be a rare afternoon of success on the road.
19’04” was marked in the customary fashion, though a little less impressive was the “how shit must you be” offering a little while later – c’mon boys and girls, isn’t that a bit insulting to our own side?
Anyway, on the pitch City were in comfortable control, using their numerical advantage impressively. Sunderland were offering little as an attacking threat, for three reasons: being a man down, coming up against a side playing well, and (sad to say) Jozy Altidore. It hasn’t really worked for him at Sunderland, and while we saw a rough diamond during his time here, those rough edges have actually grown more jagged. Physically unimposing despite his frame, poor in the area and cursed by an erratic first touch, the Sunderland fans are unenamoured by him, and it’s easy to see why. A pity, though.
A trio of half-chances came in quick succession as the half wore on – Figueroa seeing one saved by Mannone, who was then required to make a fine save from a Jelavić header after a fine Rosenior cross. Meanwhile, Steve Harper made a comfortable save from an optimistic effort from distance by Alonso.
Woodwork was struck on 35 when Long collected possession just outside the area, enjoyed a brief perambulation away from goal before suddenly turning and crashing a left-footed shot against Mannone’s right hand post – a superb effort that was just inches from virtually settling the game before half time.
Just before the break, a useful reminder that a one-goal lead is never secure: Figueroa headed an attempted cross to Johnson, whose superb first-time volley from outside the area thankfully went straight to Harper. A foot higher, or a yard to either side, and we could have been glumly cursing one of the goals of the season.
As it was, we led, and deservedly so. Sunderland had never properly cleared their heads after their third red card of the season against City, and to offer our lads some credit, they hadn’t been allowed to. The cliché that it’s harder to play against ten men is, of course, total nonsense – if you doubt that, ask a bookie whether he’d increase or decrease the odds of a team playing against ten men. That’s not to say it’s without challenges, but it is a huge help if properly exploited. By starving Sunderland of possession and committing enough men forward to ensure the home side were kept occupied in their own half, we were doing everything right.
Less right is the accommodation now provided to away fans at the Stadium of Light. We’re now positioned at the opposite end of the stadium, in the upper tier. The view itself is not bad, they serve ale at half-time and it’s not as high as at Newcastle, but it is much more remote than on previous visits. That’s the point of home advantage though, and it’s a shame we cannot replicate it ourselves at the Circle.
City began the second half with one change, with Liam Rosenior being withdrawn for Robert Koren. The match broadly resumed the same pattern, though there were signs that Sunderland were looking to send a few men further forward – after all, they were losing, so why not?
They even had the first opening of the half, when Ki’s shot from the edge of the area took a deflection that required a smart parry by Harper. At the other end, a fantastic through-ball by Meyler found the run of Jelavić, whose control was immaculate but shot from the angle a little mis-hit and off-target. A neat move though.
No matter; just after the hour, with Sunderland tiring, the game was settled. Figueroa was allowed to amble forward all the way into shooting distance, and his meatily-struck effort hit a defender, looped upwards to where Jelavić had anticipated possible scraps to feed upon, and his header was beautifully judged to sail over Mannone and in. We danced with the giddy glee that comes only with a virtually certain away win as Jelavić celebrated his first Premier League goal in ages.
That was effectively it. Even the most fatalistic City fan (ie, most of us) couldn’t really see a way back for Sunderland, and neither could our counterparts, as their numbers began to gradually thin. Meanwhile, the Newcastle-supporting steward in front of us winked in appreciation. Stood at the front of the left hand side, we assumed he’d been deployed to urge usage of our seats, though we were blocking no-one; turned out he just fancied a chat. We tried not to mention the previous week’s result. Much.
Poyet at least attempted to restore some life to his side with a couple of changes, if only to provide some fresh legs lest a bad afternoon become a real beating, Gardner and Wickham replacing Ki and Bridcutt. Steve Bruce responded by bringing on Sone Aluko for his first appearance since mid-October, a gloriously welcome sight.
He nearly scored when a shot from distance bounced unpleasantly close to Mannone, who did well to shovel it wide for a corner. That was largely it, and if you were to be ultra-critical you could wonder whether City might have scored more as Sunderland basically gave up. However, at 2-0 up there’s no need to take risks in case a Sunderland goal led to a fraught finale (or worse), nor over-extend yourselves with another game on Tuesday. Certainly, there was no complaining in the away end, which was a giant party.
And so, via the late introduction of Brady for Long, City won. And they won well. Point to the man advantage if you wish, but you can only beat what’s in front of you. That’s precisely what City did.
Long and Jelavić looked a serious handful, and a strike partnership you wouldn’t want us to face too often. Let’s leave aside our concerns over their affordability or the club’s colossal debt for now, there’s no doubt these are players of serious quality.
Happily, they’re not alone in deserving that status. Huddlestone and Livermore ran the midfield, Davies and McShane were ruthless in snuffing out Sunderland’s attempts to establish a foothold, while Elmohamady and Rosenior linked up better than ever to provide, in the first half at least, a constant source of torment. And we still have Aluko and Brady to return. S’alright, that.
So, well played City. 11th again, and with four points cushioning us from the bottom three. That’s not many points, but it requires at least seven teams to overhaul us in three months. Possible. But it’s a lot of teams. Thirteen games remain, and four wins will probably do it. Who wouldn’t have taken that in August?