Make no mistake, this was a stunning performance by Sunderland; one of the best, if not the best of the season. Forget the 4-0 over Stoke, 2-0 over Arsenal, the 4-1 at Wigan or the previous win over Manchester City on New Year’s Day, this was as convincing as any performance this season, partly because it was so much against the odds.
If we had held on for 3-1 at the Etihad, justice would have been done, and the whole day would have been like the 3-0 win at Chelsea 16 months ago, but it was more the style of play and the way in which we took the game to the hosts from the start that impressed. This was eventually the first time Manchester City had dropped a point at home since February, 2011.
We lined up with 22 Mignolet, 02 Bardsley, 04 Turner, 12 Kilgallon (Kyrgiakos - 81'), 06 Cattermole (Vaughan - 90'), 07 Larsson, 08 Gardner, 14 Colback, 23 McClean, 28 Sessegnon, 52 Bendtner.
In what they probably thought would be a canter, City were represented by 25 Hart, 02 Richards (Johnson - 46'), 04 Kompany, 13 Kolarov, 28 K. Toure, 07 Milner (Pizarro - 81'), 21 Silva (Tevez - 58'), 34 De Jong, 42 Y. Toure, 10 Dzeko, 45 Balotelli.
City were dominated from the start of the game but the Black Cats had to wait for the 31st minute to take the lead. Sessegnon cantered past 3 City players, cutting in from the left and found Seb Larsson at the edge of the box, and the Swede simply passed the ball accurately into the bottom right-hand corner of Joe Hart’s net.
City clawed their way back into the game when Gardner was too physical with Edin Dzeko in the corner of the box, and he collided with the Sunderland midfielder. It seemed soft but Gardner was in Dzeko's way, but the team surrounded the referee and protested volubly, resulting in a charge to the club for misconduct: the FA has said that Sunderland failed "to ensure players conducted themselves in an orderly fashion".
Up stepped Balotelli to send Mignolet the wrong way from the spot. Back in it but still not playing well, there were several signs of disunity and arguments in the home camp. A row broke out between Dzeko and Phil Bardsley when play was stopped following a clash of heads between Micah Richards and Jack Colback. Balotelli was an unlikely peacemaker and play restarted, and the Lads were up for it running up to half-time.
Sunderland took a quick free-kick on the right, Sessegnon moved forward and somehow James Milner turned his back as the Benin international crossed for the born-again Nicklas Bendtner to rise unchallenged to plant the ball in the corner of the next for his 4th in 5 games. The guy was where he should be, in the penalty box, on the end of good deliveries. Mancini looked apoplectic, but there was just a few seconds before the break and I am sure the manager made his feelings known at that time. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall of the home dressing room, at least Balotelli understands Italian.
Sunderland were still in the driving seat when play resumed and when Lee Cattermole robbed Yaya Toure inside his own half and fed Sessegnon, who pushed the ball accurately up field to Bendtner, who showed his ability by feeding a fine ball to Larsson at the far post who drove home for 3-1 on 55 min.
Kilgallon showed amazing skill after a corner on 66 min, with some quite brilliant if arrogant control, and he provided a cross for Bendtner. It was when the former Leeds and Sheff Utd centre back came off on 81 min. that we started to look a bit shaky. Balotelli was allowed to drift across from the left hand corner of the box before showing his class to drive home high into the net. The late equalizer came from Kolarov on 86 min, after his low drive from outside the box was deflected past Mignolet.
Let nothing take away from the power and purpose of Sunderland’s performance at the Etihad, they passed well, Larsson hit form again and it was a great team performance. More of the same during the run-in would be a welcome end to the season.
©Lars J.S. Knutsen
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