The Black Cats moved Campbell to the bench, despite those last two goalscoring appearances, and all the seven injured players I listed in the ESPNsoccernet match preview were all left out. The guys braving the freeze were: 22 Mignolet, 02 Bardsley, 04 Turner, 11 Richardson, 16 O'Shea, 07 Larsson, 08 Gardner, 14 Colback, 18 Meyler, (Elmohamady - 85'), 23 McClean and 28 Sessegnon. Sess is having a truly amazing season, but Benin must feel a long way away during this present cold snap.
Of the ex-Sunderland crew at Stoke, comprising Whitehead, Collins, Jones, Sørensen and Delap only the latter two featured – and Higginbotham has now been transferred to Nottingham Forest. Stoke City’s line-up was 29 Sorensen, 04 Huth, 17 Shawcross, 28 Wilkinson, (Shotton - 85'), 06 Whelan, 12 Wilson, 16 Pennant, (Woodgate - 45'), 24 Delap, 19 Walters, 25 Crouch, 33 Jerome (Fuller - 40').
After a fairly forgettable, snow-affected first half, in which Stoke dominated possession but offered little in terms of chances, and Stephane Sessègnon looked liveliest for the visitors, the fans will remember the incident at the end of the first 45 where Robert Huth tackled David Meyler and appeared to catch the midfielder’s knee. Perhaps the referee had some sympathy for the young Irishman who has had a miserable time with serious knee injuries, but he showed Huth a straight red card, which may be considered a bit harsh after seeing a replay of the incident. Still, these things balance out over a season, and Sunderland have been on the receiving end of many poor decisions this season; in this case things fell in our favour. The incensed Pulis reacted by hauling off Jermaine Pennant for Jonathan Woodgate.
After half-time O’Neill opted to keep the same line-up, which erred on the defensive, but Sunderland went close just after the interval as Sessègnon headed James McClean's cross just over the bar. At the other end, a Marc Wilson long-rang effort looped up off a Black Cats player, but the visitors made their man advantage count and 15 minutes into the second half, they took the lead.
Sess exchanged quick passes with McLean who rode a couple of abrasive challenges from Andy Wilkinson and Ryan Shawcross when bursting into the box. The 22-year old former Derry City kid stayed on his feet then showed great coolness to slot the ball past the onrushing Thomas Sørensen and into the corner of the net, leaving the 10-man Potters with a tough uphill task in the last half hour of the game.
James McLean has emerged strongly from his team's great run, and has been making a name for himself since his promotion to the first team after his dominant part in dismantling Man Utd reserves 6-3 under the eyes of his compatriot new manager in early December. He has a refreshing, have-a-go attitude that has contributed hugely to the revival of form at the Stadium of Light and he might just make a few more headlines tomorrow after this fine solo goal.
Sunderland were disciplined in defence, and despite the fact that both of the centre backs wore short sleeved shirts, John O'Shea and Michael Turner were outstanding throughout in the Arctic conditions. Delap tried to make a swift response, and lashed a shot off target. When Mignolet got away with spilling a long throw from the former Sunderland midfielder, Walters put an effort high and wide.
Stoke continued to press after going behind, and Crouch's smart header was caught by Mignolet, who then got down to save an angled effort from Fuller, as Sunderland played out the game very professionally.
Of Huth’s dismissal, Pulis said: "If it was a really bad challenge and you get caught, and I've seen some of them this year, then you can say that was a really poor, poor tackle, you've caught him and he stays down then fair enough. But when you see him doing that, the referee might have reacted a little differently today if the kid had got up and been honest about the challenge." He obviously blamed Meyler for Huth’s departure.
O'Neill said: "Naturally I'm delighted to win the game, the conditions were pretty atrocious and they got worse as the game went on, I was just very pleased to have finished the game. I think I have played and managed in conditions every bit as bad as that, but it's a difficult decision for everyone once the game starts."
The quote the report in The Sun, “this was another test passed for Martin O'Neill's side. Such has been Stoke City's brutal impression on the Premier League, a marker of any club's progression can be made upon a visit to the Britannia Stadium". Sunderland have now consolidated 8th spot in the Premiership, and we fear no-one at the moment.
©Lars J.S. Knutsen