Final Score: Sunderland 2 Southampton 2
THEY’VE made life difficult for themselves on so many occasions this season, so it’s only fitting that Sunderland continue to go about their quest for Premier League survival the hard way.
If the Black Cats avoid relegation come May, Saturday’s result will be one that is looked back on as extremely important even if their first-half performance will be quickly forgotten by those unfortunate enough to witness it.
For the opening 45 minutes, Poyet’s players looked as if they were still enjoying a Saturday morning lie-in with Jay Rodriquez and Dejan Lovren giving the Saints a two-goal lead. Thankfully, Fabio Borini popped up with yet another important goal before Adam Johnson made it four in two to earn his side a crucial draw.
Every little helps when you’re down at the bottom and the ability to eke out a result when you haven’t played well for large parts is a crucial characteristic for a team in the midst of a relegation dogfight.
When Lovren volleyed home Steven Davis’ corner just after the half-hour mark, it felt like Southampton would run away with the game, but a resurgent second half display reminded those of red and white persuasion that under Poyet, Sunderland have the character to get themselves out of trouble.
That hasn’t been the case for a long time and even if a massive improvement will be needed for Wednesday night’s Capital One Cup semi-final second leg at Manchester United, the Wearsiders did what they needed to do and that keep things ticking over.
The opportunity to get out of the bottom three for the first time since August wasn’t taken, but the gap that once looked like an impossible one to bridge now looks favourably on Sunderland.
They could have done without wins for Crystal Palace and Norwich, but the fact three points separate the bottom seven means draws like Saturday’s – albeit an ugly one – may just prove the difference.
“Any point that we gain now is massive, especially against a big club like Southampton, because people maybe don’t expect us to win these game,” said Vito Mannone. “Even though we could have done better we are happy we came back and got the point, because it could be very important for us in a few months time.
“We were disappointed because each one of us was below par. The gaffer said that to us but I don’t think he needed to because we know in the last few games where our performance has to be and we knew we weren’t at the standard we could be. We showed character and stepped it up a gear and you could see that.
“The ability to get a result when you haven’t played well for a big chunk is important when we are fighting for our lives. The fans were unhappy and rightly so, but we were unhappy as well and in the second half we gave them something to cheer about and it changed the environment.”
Mannone was right. In the space of 60 seconds the atmosphere inside the Stadium of Light had gone from despair to joy.
Borini’s goal woke Sunderland up and gave the crowd a massive lift that in turn translated onto the pitch.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side has enjoyed 80 per cent possession in the first half, but the chances they had to go with that frightening statistic weren’t being put away.
Mannone had something to do with that, saving well from Rickie Lambert and the impressive Luke Shaw, but an entirely different Sunderland entered the field after half-time.
The Saints continued to threaten on the counter and could have restored their two-goal advantage through Rodriquez, but the Black Cats were in the ascendancy when Borini raced through from Craig Gardner’s flick-on.
The Italian finished with a neat shot past Artur Boruc, but the goal was ruled out by the referee’s assistant with replays suggesting he was fractionally offside.
Poyet has described Johnson’s recent form as like having a new signing and when Gardner’s pass found the winger on the right hand side of the box, it was almost inevitable he would twist and turn before beating Boruc at his near post.
Steven Fletcher was introduced straight after the equaliser and he almost grabbed a winner when Boruc spilled Gardner’s low drive straight into the Scotsman’s path.
There was an element of luck for the Black Cats when Wes Brown’s awful challenge on Gaston Ramirez went unpunished with the midfielder forced off on a stretcher almost simultaneously to Lovren - who was injured in a separate incident at the other end of the pitch – and they will now go into Wednesday night’s game on the back of positive second half response.
“It gives you belief with the way we’re dealing with things at the moment,” John O’Shea said. “I think in the second half you saw what we wanted to do in the first. If we had that start, you look at Southampton as a team and the players they have and we probably stood off them a bit too much. In the second half we changed that and we were much more cohesive.
“In the first half we played like a team of strangers. To go from our performance last week to that... look, we’ve come back against a very good team as well and played some very good stuff in the second half.