Sturdy Selhurst Park showing from Sam’s Sunderland

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Sam Allardyce – www.telegraph.co.uk

Everybody knew what Sunderland’s game plan would be come eight o’clock on Monday night. As a team that had won just once in the league all season prior to kick-off, and as a team that were four points adrift of safety, they had to be defend in numbers. Whether the neutrals like Sam Allardyce’s long ball approach or whether some believed it to be wrong for the game, did not matter. Sunderland simply did not have the flair, nor the confidence, to beat Crystal Palace on technical ability alone. If they were going to win, it was always going to be in the most disciplined, committed and downright ugly way possible. That was exactly what happened.

From the first few minutes, we could see the format the match was going to assume. Predictably, Crystal Palace controlled the early possession with midfielder James McArthur dictating the tempo. On the left flank, Wilfried Zaha looked to show his trickery but right wing-back Billy Jones, helped by the support of Sebastien Larsson, held his ground and stopped the former Man United winger from reaching the byline.

Sunderland did not commit too many men forward when they attacked, but striker Steven Fletcher looked lively despite limited support. The Black Cats could have made more of their first half breakaways but were let down by poor shooting, as Patrick Van Aanholt woefully mishit his shot after moving forward from the left. Aside from Sunderland’s front men, the Dutchman was the team’s most forward-looking player, but his end product left a little to be required.

Jones got forward a couple of times and on one occasion laid the ball off for Jermaine Defoe, who dragged his shot from the edge of the box just wide of the far post. However, Sunderland’s three midfielders, Yann M’Vila, Sebastien Larsson and Lee Cattermole were focused solely on staying deep and crowding the central areas.

As a result, Crystal Palace were forced to push their full-backs, Joel Ward and Pape Souare, forward and this happened increasingly in the first half. Although both players made some good forward runs, Palace’s midfielders often took too long to switch the ball from one flank to another. This meant Sunderland’s midfield three had time to shuffle towards either flank and stop Palace’s wingers and full-backs from finding two-on-one situations.

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Wilfried Zaha – www.standard.co.uk-

The home side’s wide men, Wilfried Zaha and Yannick Bolasie, frequently swapped flanks to try and unsettle the Black Cats’ rearguard, but still they were unable to penetrate. Despite many promising moments of faint trickery from Zaha, it took him 43 minutes to be able to get the opposing wing-back and reach the byline. On that particular occasion, the cross came to nothing. Due to Palace’s inability to get in behind Sunderland’s defence, lone striker Connor Wickham was starved of service. The target man who had spent four years at Sunderland previously was rarely involved and managed just five touches in the opposition box all night according to WhoScored.

A couple of long range passes from Lee Cattermole helped create a brief period of Sunderland pressure just before half-time, but the former Middlesbrough man’s teammates were unable to test Wayne Hennessey in the Palace goal. In fact, both goalkeepers walked back into the dressing room at half-time having been untested.

Palace looked to give Costel Pantilimon more of an examination early in the second half. Perfectionistic passer Jason Puncheon came off, making way for the more brutish and forceful Bakary Sako in a bid to liven up the home side’s attack. Rather than patiently probe, the Eagles looked to get earlier balls into the box and be a bit more direct. Because Palace had less defensive balance in midfield, full-backs Joel Ward and Pape Souare were perhaps a touch more reluctant to get forward than they were in the first half.

Midfielder Yohan Cabaye was given more licence to hit shots from distance and the Frenchman tested Pantilimon just six minutes after the restart. The former Newcastle man’s long range effort was an awkward one, swerving away from the goalkeeper, who palmed it nervously away. Had the pattern of the first fifteen minutes of the second half remained the same, one suspects that Crystal Palace might have powered their way through a tiring Sunderland defence that was dropping deeper and deeper.

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Duncan Watmore – sportsbyte.sunderland.ac.uk

With half an hour to go, visiting manager Sam Allardyce made an inspired pair of substitutions that changed the course of the game. Youngster Duncan Watmore came on for Sebastien Larsson while Jeremain Lens replaced Steven Fletcher. Both Watmore and Lens gave Sunderland the energy required to carry the team forward on the break and occupy Palace’s defence. When those two players were leading the counter-attacks, Palace’s attacking players had to move further back and as a result, the away defence was given some much needed respite.

With ten minutes to go, Jermain Defoe scored what could prove a pivotal goal for Sunderland. Crystal Palace winger Yannick Bolasie was trying to perform another trip and he lost control of the ball after being closed down and the ball fell in the direction of centre-back Scott Dann. Under pressure from Defoe, Dann was forced into a period of indecision. He did not know whether to clear the ball or to simply trust that goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, who had begun to charge out of his goal before stopping panic-struck, would get forward to clear it. Rightly or wrongly, is decision was to try to shield the ball from Defoe and wait for Hennessey to come out. That did not happen and the veteran striker was able to take advantage of the miscommunication by rounding the goalkeeper and scoring. Defoe admitted that there was an element of luck about his goal, but the former Tottenham man deserves credit for his opportunism. He was alert to the situation and showed the positive attitude needed to close Dann down, when in many other similar situations, the centre-back would have cleared the ball and he would have been unrewarded for his efforts.

Crystal Palace applied the pressure. Yohan Cabaye’s fierce shot from the edge of the box forced a reflex save from Pantilimon while his injury-time free-kick hit the side netting, moments before the final whistle was blown. Sunderland had held firm and their three centre-backs, Younes Kaboul, John O’Shea and Sebastien Coates, deserve huge credit for dealing with every high ball that came their way.

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Jermain Defoe – www.mirror.co.uk

Despite the victory, Sam Allardyce admitted in his post-match interview that the team did not pass the ball as well as they could. However, pretty passing was not a priority for the north-east side on Monday night and due to the limited number of players they committed forward, it would have been hard for them to win with a great deal of flair. Instead, for perhaps the first time this season, we have seen a Sunderland team that is willing to work and battle for one another. If they are to beat the drop, that is what they will have to do from here on in.