Sunderland travelled to the South of Wales on a grim, precipitous Saturday afternoon, to face fellow strugglers Swansea in a crucial match that would shape the bottom of the table.
Bob Bradley’s Swans have found little joy in their recent Premier League fixtures shipping 17 goals in their last 5 games - something Sunderland would certainly be looking to exploit. Fernando Llorente - the bullish forward from Pamplona - led the Swansea line, with Gylfi Sigurdsson sitting in just behind him; ensuring set pieces would be an issue Sunderland would have to deal with.
David Moyes made one enforced change to the line-up that inflicted more misery on the stuttering champions of last season, with Sebastian Larsson taking Duncan Watmore’s place on the right-hand side of Sunderland’s attack. Moyes’ selection of the experienced Swede suggested that Larsson’s workrate and desire would be considered more valuable than flair or trickery, leaving Khazri and Januzaj consigned to warming the bench once more.
Jason Denayer and Steven Pienaar both overcame their respective illness and mild concussion to regain their place in the starting eleven while Fabio Borini’s inclusion on the Sunderland bench was a much welcomed sight.
Sunderland: Pickford, Jones, Djilobodji, Kone, van Aanholt, Denayer, Ndong, Larsson, Pienaar, Anichebe, Defoe.
Substitutes: Mannone, Manquillo, O’Shea, Kirchhoff, Januzaj, Khazri, Borini.
With the shrill blast of the referee’s whistle, and the roar of another fine away following, Sunderland began proceedings. The opening minutes were a tense affair which Swansea perhaps edged with Modou Barrow looking sharp in the initial exchanges.
On 5 minutes, The Liberty Stadium erupted with applause for young Bradley Lowery, and a giant image of the brave youngster was shown on the Swansea scoreboards. A real classy touch from the club, showing that football matches aren't perhaps quite as important as we make them out to be.
The game carried on in its dull, dreary manner until just before the 20 minute mark, when a precision pass from Pickford found Anichebe, who in turn found Defoe. The diminutive forward shimmied into the box before firing a wicked drive just over the bar. The direct counter-attack was too much for Swansea, and in the wet conditions - the long ball looked like the best option for Moyes’ men.
The game really was a scrappy affair if truth be told, and was plagued by a lack of any real quality. Other than Defoe’s aforementioned chance Swansea had the only other opportunities after heading over two delightful Sigurdsson set pieces. Sunderland were warned that set-pieces would be Swansea's main threat, and the two aforementioned attempts were warnings that needed to be heeded.
It was clear to see that Sunderland’s new look formation was struggling without the energy and determination afforded to it by Duncan Watmore. Steven Pienaar struggled with the pace required to play the left forward role while Anichebe struggled to affect the game from the right hand side of the pitch. The overall balance wasn’t quite as harmonious as it was in recent weeks, and prevented the Lads from dominating affairs.
The final moments of the first half passed by without any significant action, and the players scurried into the dressing room desperate to escape the incessant rain.
The second half duly resumed and disaster struck less than 5 minutes after the restart. Swansea broke into the Sunderland third, and an attempted cross was adjudged to have been blocked by Jason Denayer’s arm. Replays didn’t really clear the matter up, but if you raise your arms, you’re asking referees to make a decision. Sigurdsson cooly dispatched the penalty and Sunderland heads dropped; 1-0 Swansea.
Further calamity ensued and just over 4 minutes later. Swansea broke again after a poor pass from Denayer, and Barrow raced into the Sunderland area before unleashing a thunderbolt of a strike that Jordan Pickford somehow managed to keep out. Great save.
Unfortunately for young Jordan, his heroics did very little to inspire those around him and from the resulting corner, Swansea found themselves two goals to the good. A low drive found Llorente running towards the front post, and he flicked the ball delicately into the far corner. Implosion from the Sunderland squad once more.
Jordan Pickford continued to throw himself at everything Swansea tried, again producing a magnificent save from another header from another Sigurdsson free-kick - when were Sunderland going to learn their lessons and stop with the needless fouls inside their own half? Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.
From the 60th minute forward, Swansea looked to casually stroke the ball around the pitch and Sunderland had no response to their double-salvo. A lack of passion, desire and drive was painfully evident and Sunderland laboured around the pitch. Moyes offered Januzaj and Kirchhoff in an effort at refreshing the team, but alas they too were largely ineffective.
Further lacklustre play allowed Swansea to grab a third after 80 minutes. Poor pressing and a lack of defensive conviction enable Jefferson Montero to clip a ball into the Sunderland area from the byline, beating every Sunderland defender, but finding Llorente once more, who was able to calmly nod the ball past Pickford and cement Swansea’s victory.
From that point on the game trickled toward the final whistle, and while Jermain Defoe and Papy Djilobodji forced half chances, ultimately Sunderland were well and truly beaten. To compound the misery felt by all, the players began to argue and bicker among themselves, showing symptoms of the fragility that plagued us earlier this season - a worrying sign.
In the end Swansea deserved their victory solely down to their desire and grit in chasing the win. Sunderland, however, will have to trudge back to the drawing board and assess just what went so horribly wrong today. Fingers crossed this was nothing more than just a blip.
Next up? Chelsea at home on Wednesday night.
Keep the faith
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