FORGET a footballer’s common claim that they have not had a glance at the standings after a result – the Sunderland squad enjoy looking at the Premier League table right now.
It may not have been particularly pretty, but in overcoming Liverpool with a narrow victory, courtesy of Nicklas Bendtner’s potent second half strike, Martin O’Neill has now won 11 of the 18 matches he has been in charge of.
Such a record, even after a run of three league matches without a win before the visit of Jordan Henderson and Co, has transformed the fortunes at the Stadium of Light – a venue which, not too long ago, seemed to strike fear into those playing in red and white shirts.
Ahead of the visit of Carling Cup winners Liverpool, who admittedly are going through a difficult time in the league, the inevitable doubts were raised because Sunderland were without the suspended pair of Lee Cattermole and Stephane Sessegnon.
Yet the visitors’ profligacy combined with a dogged display from a Sunderland team shorn of two of their key players after the tempestuous Tyne-Wear derby led to the latest success story of O’Neill’s reign.
After seeing out the game following Bendtner’s decisive winner ten minutes after halftime, there was an immediate admission from within the Black Cats camp that their new top ten position had already been noted.
“It’s not like we have been looking (at the table) or anything!”
said striker Fraizer Campbell, sporting a smile almost as wide as the day he learned he had been called up for the England squad last month.
“I think we might have gone eighth! You are under pressure when you don’t win games all the time. But we knew we had been playing good football. We have been showing the right mentality, we stuck to our guns, and we worked hard for each other.
“We are two points behind Liverpool, they are a great side. They are up there year in year out, so to be so close to them at this stage of the season is credit to all of us.”
The situation Sunderland find themselves in looks all the more impressive when it is remembered that under Steve Bruce this same group of players were battling to stay out of the relegation zone as recently as December.
Going forward, Sunderland might not have been up to much against the Reds, but defensively they never looked like conceding as John O’Shea marshalled a back four competently in keeping Luis Suarez, Craig Bellamy and Dirk Kuyt quiet.
Even when Steven Gerrard, Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing were introduced in the latter stages of the second half by Kenny Dalglish, goalkeeper Simon Mignolet was well protected by those in front of him.
If they can head in to the FA Cup quarter-final with Everton on Saturday with a similar belief that the job can be done without the tenacity of Cattermole and the flair of Sessegnon then Sunderland could edge another step towards Europa League qualification.
Campbell said: “We are just taking each game as it comes.
We have a tough game next week. But we are just enjoying ourselves at the minute.
We just want to keep on winning.
If we do that we can move further up the table.
“We are also two games away from Europe in the FA Cup. That is exactly the way we have to look at it. One win and you are at Wembley, two and you are in the final.”
Conditions at the Stadium of Light hardly helped on Saturday.
Sunderland did cope with the gusty wind and the poor surface better than their Liverpool counterparts.
Opportunities were few and far between at both ends. In the first half O’Shea glanced a header over, while Mignolet denied Kuyt and Suarez from reasonable positions.
It was always going to be a moment of magic or slice of good fortune that broke the deadlock and it was the latter.
Two-and-a-half years after Darren Bent’s winner defeated Liverpool with the help of a beach-ball, Bendtner had the assistance of the woodwork and Pepe Reina’s head.
After the Denmark striker rolled the ball back to Jack Colback he continued his run in to the Liverpool box. By the time he arrived, Campbell had chested down a pass, turned Martin Skrtel outside the box and unleashed a shot from 18 yards.
Campbell’s strike hit the foot of the post, bounced off the head of Reina and on to the woodwork again before Bendtner reacted first to arch a volley in to the Liverpool net.
It was a nice way to begin a new attacking partnership for the Sunderland forwards.
“I like to hit the post twice before I get an assist,” said Campbell. “I think it must be that super hero mask he was wearing.”
The introduction of Gerrard did increase Liverpool’s impetus. But Sunderland stayed strong to leave Liverpool ten points behind Arsenal and Chelsea in the race for fourth.
Dalglish is a man of few words at the best of times, but even more so after Liverpool had lost their third league game in a row for the first time since Gerard Houllier’s days in charge in 2003.
“It’s up to us to keep going, and keep our mouths shut,”
said Dalglish. “As I’ve said all season, we see how many points we have collected by the end of the campaign, and see where that takes us.
“There wasn’t much in the game, it was decided by a bit of luck, that was the difference between a draw and a defeat. I thought we matched them.”
Matched Sunderland in many ways? Perhaps. Crucially, the scoreline suggested otherwise.