A three all draw is always more satisfying when your team has recovered from three nil down than when it has thrown away a three goal lead. Against West Brom, Norwich and now Chelsea, we have gone two or more down and fought back. The team’s performances in the latter stages of those games can be seen as causes for optimism, but haven’t in the end produced a single point. That’s certainly the spin the manager is putting on the outcome of those games, but once Pete Sixsmith has had time for objectivity to kick in he sees worryingly weak team performances achieving too little, too late.
One of the problems with doing a seven-word summary of each game for Salut! Sunderland (other than the fact that you have had to sit through 90 minutes of a Sunderland game), is that it is usually an immediate response that can be coloured by the way that we end the game.
Yesterday, we finished off strongly and with a modicum of good fortune, we may well have put The Pensioners under more pressure in the final quarter of the game. The team were given a generous round of applause by we members of the crowd who had stayed until the end, and there were positives to take as we filed out. The word in the Gents was that if we play like that we should be OK against Reading.
However, as one trooped back to the car and on arrival, put the radio on, the mood began to change. Yes, we played some decent football. Yes, we stung Cech’s hands a few times. Yes, we scored a good goal and hit the bar and the post, but we also defended like a poor Premier League side – which is what we are.
What looked like a dreadful decision by Mark Halsey from high up in the East Stand, becomes a dreadful decision by Seb Larsson who has form on this kind of thing, his clumsy and unnecessary challenge on Moses (then of Wigan) contributing to Steve Bruce being dismissed from his post.
On the drive home, there was also the realisation that Chelsea stopped playing after 49 minutes. By that time, they were 3 up due to our inability to either pass the ball to a red and white shirt (Phil Bardsley gave it away up field), make a sensible challenge in our own box (see above) or clear our lines (poor old Bardsley again).
As they contemplated a charter flight from Ponteland to Tokyo, the likes of Juan Mata, who was excellent again and the best player I have seen for a long time, Fernando Torres, whose arrival for the first goal reminded me of when I watched him as a 16 year old at New Ferens Park and the busy Eden Hazard must have hoped that Monterey of Mexico will be as accommodating as we were.
Three goals presented to a team who despite their pedigree, are by no means as effective as they have been. As a club they are riven by dissent, their supporters making it clear that Benitez is as welcome at Stamford Bridge as the Ghost of Christmas Past was at the premises of Messrs Scrooge and Marley.
But they have quality players and pace in abundance, which did for us early on. They could have been three up in the first ten minutes, before eventually scoring in the eleventh. Once that went in, we were chasing the game and, as any fool knows, we don’t do that.
Our defence, which got us through the early days of the season, is beginning to look distinctly tatty. Phil Bardsley was shocking yesterday. Every error he made was the fault of that well known player S O Else, who failed to read every misplaced pass, failed to get on the end of every lumped clearance and failed to do exactly what Bardsley wanted him to do. He was replaced after 75 minutes and I suspect we may not see him again. One of the Lancashire B clubs may be his next resting place in January.
Carlos Cuellar has been a very good player and would still look decent at Leicester, Lille or Levante, but he is creaking at Premier League level. Too many times he ends up making a last ditch tackle or interception or just not getting there in time, as was the case for Torres’s opener. O’Shea is of a similar ilk.
The midfield is, as we have been saying since August, pedestrian, particularly through the middle. Mata v Gardner, Hazard v Larsson was about as equally matched as a wrestling bout between Jimmy Clitheroe and Geoff Capes. Larsson in particular looked ill suited to a central role.
We can take some solace from the two wingers. I thought Johnson did well in patches – although he gives the ball away so easily. Someone tell him that we don’t have Yaya Toure to get it back for him.
I also thought that James McClean was as effective as he has been all season. That was maybe because he only had one man up against him, even though that was the reliable Ivanovic. It was a good tussle between the two and I think McClean just about shaded it. First time I have said that for a while!!
The fact that our best player was a loanee speaks volumes. Danny Rose looked good at full back and, when he moved into midfield, gave us the pace that we have been crying out for. Will he be there on Tuesday? That could be the defining choice of O’Neill’s tenure at the club.
A win on Tuesday is essential. It will lift us out of the bottom three, heap the pressure on Reading, who are really struggling and hopefully, give us the confidence that we need to go on for the rest of the season. But would you bet on it? Not sure that I would.