Chris Young’s match analysis: Cats are dropping like Canaries
ON APRIL 28 last year, Norwich City fell into the relegation zone and were unable to again breathe the sweet air above the water-line.
The Canaries had barely been on red alert all season; spending just a month in the bottom three in the Autumn and then continually lingering in that concertinaed pack of clubs loitering just above the deadmen.
With six games to go, they could even boast a six-point buffer to the no-man’s land with the Championship.
But when they plummeted into the drop zone with three games to go, they couldn’t dig themselves out again – taking just a solitary point from that last trio of do-or-die encounters, albeit they were against Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal.
There are alarming parallels to Sunderland’s situation this time around.
All season, Sunderland have shown the relegation places a bit of leg and a flirtatious glint in the eye, yet other than the week prior to November’s crucial win at Crystal Palace, they have managed to avoid falling into those dreaded three places.
By hook or by crook, Sunderland have managed to linger a couple of feet back from the precipice, and it’s been a source for instilling confidence in the dressing room that they have stayed marginally clear.
But now – at the business end of the campaign – Sunderland have to rescue themselves, and swiftly.
With 15 points still on offer, there is plenty of opportunity to register the required haul that will prolong the club’s eight-year stay in the Premier League.
It’s why there was no sense of panic at the league position in the Sunderland camp after Saturday’s draw at Stoke City, particularly after a much-improved display of determination.
But as this week goes on, how will these players react to the sight of the league table and the no-room-for-error challenge which stems from falling into the bottom three at this late stage of proceedings?
Last season, it was a completely different psychological position which Sunderland faced in the Great Escape.
All year long, it had looked like a case of Sunderland plus two others, who would fall into the Championship.
By the time Sunderland’s remarkable turnaround began with six games to go, their Premier League prospects were so bleak that the players could almost relax and play with a sense of nothing to lose.
It’s one of the factors behind Leicester registering four wins on the spin and likewise down the leagues, Sunderland’s neighbours Hartlepool United completing a remarkable escape from falling into the Conference this weekend.
But Sunderland can’t call upon that underdog spirit this season. They have not been battle-hardened by a relegation zone existence.
This is a fresh, shock to the system that Sunderland must immediately acclimatise to. Otherwise they’re down. That’s life now.
Notoriously inconsistent Sunderland can’t even hope that a one-off win will be sufficient for them either, given the required points tally appears to have gone up over the weekend.
For months, it has looked like 35 points would be more than enough to beat the drop.
But now... well, Newcastle, who have 35 themselves, suddenly don’t look quite as safe.
With Leicester and Hull both reaching 31 after their away wins on Saturday, Dick Advocaat’s guess that Sunderland still require another six points (particularly considering their inferior goal difference) seems reasonable.
A team that has won five games out of 33, may now need to win two from five.
In fairness to Advocaat’s players, their mentality was far, far better in the Potteries – arguably as much commitment on show as there has been in months, if the one-off nature of the Wear-Tyne derby is excluded.
Stoke dominated the first half and overran Sunderland in central midfield, where Charlie Adam and Stephen Ireland exploited yet another off-the-pace display from Jack Rodwell, at a time of the season when the £10million investment really needs to be paying off.
But Sunderland hung on – Sebastian Coates justifying his inclusion with several superb clearances from crosses.
It was the same in the latter stages after Sunderland’s chances had come and gone, with Coates making a series of crucial blocks, while Costel Pantilimon made two absolutely stunning stages to ensure a share of the spoils.
But determination and commitment are not the only mental traits which need to be apparent at this stage of proceedings.
Those teams who successfully avoid relegation harbour players who can keep their cool and ruthlessness in front of goal when the pressure is at its peak.
It’s why Burnley and QPR fell short in crucial encounters on Saturday. They couldn’t handle the heat from the penalty spot.
Likewise, when the moments came for Jermain Defoe (twice) Connor Wickham and Billy Jones to make themselves a hero, they couldn’t secure their place on the back pages, albeit it took a superb block from Asmir Begovic to deny the latter.
Considering the areas Sunderland found themselves in during the second half at the Britannia, it was an opportunity for victory which a side engulfed in trouble can ill-afford to turn their nose up at.
Of course, there’s an issue of quality too at the failure to turn one point into three.
When it’s happened 15 times this season now, quality is evidently a factor.
Looking at the starting XI, and particularly the strength (or lack of it) on the bench, it demonstrated the hand dealt to Advocaat is hardly a sure-fire winner. On paper, the team sheet hardly inspired confidence. With no Adam Johnson – rightly left out after the mental strain of events last week – Emanuele Giaccherini, Ricky Alvarez or Seb Larsson, there was precious little creativity available to the ex-Holland manager, albeit the decision to exclude rookie winger Duncan Watmore from the squad was a bizarre one.
It was credit to Advocaat that he managed to drag a positive performance out of that side in an utterly absorbing encounter, even if it took his intervention at the interval to alter the complexion of the game by abandoning 4-4-2 and going back to 4-3-3.
By putting three men in the middle of the park and using Danny Graham as an attacking beach head, the 100mph tempo of the first half slowed down and Sunderland were able to exert an element of control.
Advocaat wasn’t too dismayed at only coming away with a point either, even if that pleasure was tapered at learning of results from elsewhere.
The 67-year-old has been around long enough to know that nothing is settled yet with another five games still to go.
But unlike the last two seasons, Sunderland are not benefiting from those teams around them wilting or suffering dire runs of form.
While QPR and Burnley’s prospects look increasingly bleak, Sunderland now look ominous favourites to occupy that last place.
It’s going to be a lofty test of character for Sunderland’s players to disprove that theory.