How far away the excitement of Wembley Way must feel now for Sunderland fans. This was the sort of miserable home loss to mediocre opposition that hummed of relegation. From the moment Andy Carroll leapt above three centre-backs tasked with stopping just that, the omens never looked good. For all their huffing and puffing, one Lee Cattermole chance was the only moment they ever looked like equalising before they were picked off again with worrying ease by Mohamed Diame. It is not hard to see why they have the worst home record in the league and second worst when conceding the opening goal. Gus Poyet appeared to have turned fortunes around initially but with Tottenham, Everton, Chelsea and two trips to Manchester facing them in their quest to make up four points in eight games, you fear the writing may already be on the wall.
With the lower echelons of the Premier League more compact and more competitive than ever, it is vital that you take points from those around you. Only four points separate 17th from 11th, although the bottom three are starting to get cut off somewhat. So how have Poyet’s side fared against their relegation rivals? Not well. Terribly, in fact – to the tune of one win in 14 games against teams in the bottom half. Where fellow strugglers have been in need of a result to give them a leg-up, selfless Sunderland have been there to provide it. They have had to rely on unlikely wins against Manchester City and Everton to even keep their flame flickering. These performances, coupled with their runs in both cup competitions, are proof they’re a side that are more than capable of producing results. That might be what hurts the most if they do slide into the Championship.
A relegation scrap is a situation that requires guts, passion and determination. When you’ve struggled for goals like Sunderland have this season, you also need anyone with creativity and spark to volunteer themselves for superhero service. Who better to do that for the Black Cats than top-scorer and local lad Adam Johnson? Except Poyet has seen the last two games as occasions light enough to leave out a man in such irresistible form that he was being touted by some for an England recall. Bizarrely, those two games ended in defeat and the only time such an outcome looked like being avoided in this one was after his introduction. He added an infinite amount of attacking threat and when played in by fellow replacement Craig Gardner, he took his tally for the season to 10. Whether his current club are in the top flight next season has absolutely no bearing on whether he will be.
There’s not a lot to be said about this Hammers victory that hasn’t already been said. They came, they were compact and they walked away with the points courtesy of a set-piece and a deflection. There was a time, when faced with the dilemma of using Carlton Cole or Modibo Maiga as their starting striker, when you really feared for Sam Allardyce’s team. He had put all of his eggs in one basket with the £15m signing of Carroll but with the striker’s long-term injuries the gamble appeared to have blown up in his face. Credit to David Gold and David Sullivan though, they stuck with their man and, since Carroll’s return, have watched him lead a quick-fire revival towards what is now certain safety. The bottom three is currently occupied entirely by clubs with less forgiving chairman. More performances like this from Carroll and his head-to-head battle with Rickie Lambert for the position of England’s ‘Plan B’ striker for Brazil will become very interesting. Even if Allardyce can start planning for next season, his long-term future is still far from decided. The unsavoury midweek cupping of the ear incident was the surfacing of long-term complaints over playing style from supporters. They would do well to be careful what they wish for, if he can guide them to consecutive top-half finishes in the two years since taking them up.
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