Final Score: Wigan Athletic 2, Sunderland 3
CUP hangover? Not this time.
All the talk prior to Sunderland’s trip to Wigan Athletic was about how they would react after Tuesday night’s shock FA Cup exit at the hands of Championship side Bolton Wanderers.
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Would there be a repeat of the eight-game winless run that followed their defeat to Everton at the quarter-final stage last season?
It’s safe to say it’s been a funny week for the Wearsiders.
The euphoria and optimism that followed last weekend’s 3-0 win over West Ham was quickly forgotten when Bolton rocked up at the Stadium of Light and sent their Premier League rivals packing in the cup.
Saturday’s trip to the DW Stadium could have gone one of two ways for Martin O’Neill’s men. They could have come out fighting, determined to put things right, or they could have faced a struggling Wigan side, who were desperate for three points.
Thankfully for O’Neill, his players chose option one and despite some nervy moments in the final ten minutes, the Black Cats controlled their hosts for large parts and once again demonstrated that their attacking players are finally beginning to click.
A brace from Steven Fletcher and a penalty from Craig Gardner was enough to send the Black Cats home with three points in the bag and the 5,000 travelling supporters were also treated to a brilliant full debut from Alfred N’Diaye.
The win moves Sunderland up to a more comfortable 11th in the Premier League and they now sit nine points above the bottom three after their fifth win in eight league games.
Their form in the last month has picked up dramatically, but midfielder Seb Larsson insists things can change quickly.
“It’s a massive win for us,” the Sweden international said.
“Our form has picked up lately and we’ve picked up a few more points. This was another game against the teams in and around us and we wanted to try and push away from them and push up the league.
“We’re trying to look upwards for sure, but we’re not fooling ourselves. I don’t know what the table looks like now.
We’ve won a few games and we’re shooting up the league, but it could go the other way.
“We’ve got to stay focused on what we’re doing and just see where it can take us.
“I hope we can start pushing up the league. It might sound like a cliche or boring, but we’ve been down there for a long time this season so we’re not going to fool ourselves and say we’re away from it.
“It was probably even bigger to come back and win today, considering Tuesday night’s performance. I thought we showed a lot of character and strength and quality as well.”
O’Neill was clearly looking for a positive reaction from their midweek shock, but the Black Cats found themselves behind after just four minutes.
Jordi Gomez and Jean Beausejour combined down the left with the latter crossing in to Ronnie Stam. He didn’t make the best connection with the ball but his shot found David Vaughan, who accidentally turned the ball into his own net.
Not the start O’Neill wanted, but the Black Cats boss finally get the response he was looking for and two goals in the space of four minutes turned the game on its head.
It was a frenetic game from start to finish at the DW Stadium, but a mouth-watering 30- minute spell of quick thinking counter attacking play won the game for Sunderland.
Craig Gardner converted Sunderland’s first penalty in 97.5 hours of play after James McCarthy handled Larsson’s free-kick, but the main man was Steven Fletcher, who added two more goals to his tally this season and made it six in seven against the Latics.
His first came from a superb left-wing cross from N’Diaye, but his second oozed class.
Adam Johnson did well to chest Gardner’s floated free-kick into the path of the Scotsman and he took a touch before rifling his shot into the top corner.
The former Wolves man continues to justify the £12m price tag and his goals could be a major reason if the Black Cats are to improve on last season’s 13th place finish.
“That’s not a bad record (Fletcher vs Wigan),” Larsson said. “Fair play to him, they were two great finishes. Two instinctive finishes. The first one, the header, was saved and he got his foot on it. The same with the second one. It pops down and he just puts it in, a typical striker’s finish.
“It can only help us if he’s scoring. We’ve scored a few goals as a team recently, which isn’t bad for us. Steven’s overall play, the way he can hold the ball up and his link play are very important for us.
“He showed that today. At the same time, we relied way too much on him earlier in the season.
Now we are starting to chip in and that’s what we’ve got to do and when we do, it gives him a bit more space as well so teams just don’t worry about him.”
The Black Cats had two great chances to extend their lead through Stephane Sessegnon and Larsson, but they both missed and as time wore on Wigan pushed forward.
They did get it back to 3-2 when John O’Shea gifted Gomez the ball and he sent in a cross in for substitute and debutant Angelo Henriquez to nod past Mignolet.
Fletcher will undoubtedly grab the headlines for his goals, but it was the performance of Frenchman N’Diaye that really caught the eye of everyone inside the stadium.
“He’s a guy who wins headers and he maybe should have scored earlier in the game,” Larsson said.
“He shows he’s willing to get about and put himself about, which is very good.
“Someone asked me after the last game and I said he’s a different option to what we had in the squad before and today, playing the three, especially in the first half, I thought it worked well. His English is very good, so that’s not a problem.
“He’s bigger than me, that’s for sure!”