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Defensive lapses cost Cats chance to win again
Final Score: Sunderland 1 Tottenham Hotspur 2
AS part of the Invest in Africa Day which was held at the Stadium of Light to raise the profile of the club's sponsors, Sunderland's players wore t-shirts to highlight how that particular continent has some of the fastest growing economies.
But the recent green shoots of recovery coming out of the Premier League club were clipped back by Tottenham, suggesting progress on the pitch could be a little slower than the rapid financial developments in another part of the world.
The surprise Boxing Day victory over Manchester City on the back of a much-needed victory at Southampton a week earlier meant it was no longer essential for Sunderland to pick up all three points against Tottenham.
But after taking the lead five minutes before half-time courtesy of a rare John O'Shea goal, the greatest frustration was the manner in which Sunderland lost this one by virtue of conceding two unnecessary goals early in the second half.
Not only did Carlos Cuellar clumsily concede the free-kick which led to the equaliser two minutes in the second half, the Spaniard also nodded in the Kyle Walker corner which was earned seconds later.
And then there is no way Aaron Lennon should have been allowed a second chance to control a pass, which had bounced back in to his path after hitting off Matt Kilgallon. Once he had the ball under his control, Lennon then darted too easily beyond O'Shea before finding the corner of Simon Mignolet's net displaying a confidence which epitomised his overall display.
For all Sunderland have shown more positive signs in possession and going forward, Martin O'Neill must ensure lapses in concentration at the other end are eradicated if the climb away from the bottom three is to continue.
Swedish midfielder Seb Larsson said: "It's very disappointing. We threw it away unfortunately. I think we did well in the first-half, worked hard, kept going, got in front, then we find ourselves behind within six minutes of the second-half. They were both very soft goals.
“Defensively, we were sound in the first-half and when we took the lead we felt we genuinely had a good chance of winning it. But the biggest frustration is I don't think they had to work too hard for the goals they scored.
"Fair enough, they are going to create chances with the players they have got and they are going to push on when they are behind to try to get the equaliser. But we should have been more solid when that second half started. It was too very bad goals from our point of view.”
To have lost to a Tottenham side in such good form is by no means a disgrace. After a sluggish start to the season under Andre Villas-Boas they have now claimed 19 points from the last 24 available to them.
Such a return has lifted them in to the top four as they head in to the new year and Sunderland found it difficult to cope with the threats of Gareth Bale and Lennon down the flanks.
Both Craig Gardner and Kilgallon tried to contain both wingers with the occasional help of James McClean and Adam Johnson. Such was the direct and vibrant mood of Bale and Lennon, though, Sunderland never got to grips with either.
But Sunderland were never out of it because Mignolet made a number of stops to keep things close. The pick of his saves was when he got down low to his left to deny Jermain Defoe from close range after a thundering run and cross from Bale which started deep inside his own half.
Larsson said: "Simon Mignolet has been terrific for us. We know he is capable of making the saves he did as he has been doing those all season. It is just a shame we couldn't help him out a bit. He is right up there with the best and it is a shame the saves he made didn't count for anything at the end.”
While Mignolet was impressive at one end his Tottenham counterpart was equally solid at the other. Hugo Lloris might not have had too many direct saves to make, but his handling and decision making to come for crosses was a real nuisance to Sunderland's approach.
But O'Neill is keen to ensure over the coming days that the effects of losing to Tottenham does not play heavily on the players' minds ahead of Wednesday's trip to inconsistent Liverpool.
The Sunderland boss said: “I have said to the lads that the mood has always been pretty upbeat but winning football matches - like we have been doing recently – has given us an extra boost to confidence. The spirit has never been broken but it's in pretty good order.
“Confidence from winning a game or two will give you an opportunity, they are less frightened of making mistakes here. Yet there were periods in the game when we had good possession where we didn't deliver good balls in to good areas. To keep an unbeaten run going would have been good news and we would have needed to have been better doing those things.”
Lessons learned and time to move on, O'Neill can't afford for another slump to start now.
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