Flash Gordon's saves have Black Cats purring
Sunderland 3 Birmingham City 1
Another two goals for Darren Bent yesterday, but his was far from the decisive contribution in a victory that carried Sunderland towards safety; this was a game won by the heroics of Craig Gordon in goal. A run of four home games has yielded eight points to leave Sunderland 10 clear of the relegation zone, but this was far from the comfortable win it looked like being after Bent had them 2-0 up in 11 minutes.
The win was only sealed two minutes from time as Fraizer Campbell slid in Jordan Henderson's cross. Sunderland had endured a half of persistent pressure but Birmingham only had Cameron Jerome's quality finish to show for it. "It was a remarkable game," said the Birmingham manager, Alex McLeish. "Remarkably horrible from us in the first half, but after the second half we could be going away from here with a win."
Six times before in the League this season, Sunderland had squandered leads, and it was only the brilliance of Gordon, who had been superb against Manchester City last week, that prevented them adding to that pattern. Many questioned whether he was worth the £9 million Roy Keane spent bringing him from Hearts; on this form, he certainly is.
The catalogue of saves yesterday seems preposterously long: two diving to his left to keep out Keith Fahey drives; a spring to his right to push a close-range Christian Benitez header on to the bar; an outstretched right leg to divert wide Jerome's effort after he had been sent through one on one; a reflex block to his left to deny Benitez, followed by a full-length dive to his right to turn away Stephen Carr's follow-up; and a back-pedalling claw to keep out Liam Ridgewell's header.
"He was outstanding," said McLeish, who managed him at international level. "He looked every inch an international goalkeeper today, as did Joe Hart in the first half."
On another day Hart's saves from Campbell, low to his right, and Kieran Richardson, pawed away from the top corner, to prevent Sunderland going in 3-0 up at half-time would have caught the eye, but yesterday was all about Gordon. Marton Fulop, who has consistently challenged Gordon for the first-team jersey, said last week that he would seek a summer move having accepted he will only ever be the back-up; that now looks an eminently sensible decision.
"We needed our goalkeeper to produce a fantastic display," said the Sunderland manager, Steve Bruce. "He was playing really well when he broke his arm against Tottenham – mentally to get over that, the kid deserves great credit."
The other great positive for Sunderland was the form of the 19-year-old Irish midfielder David Meyler, making his fifth Premier League start since signing from Cork City for £160,000. With his extensive forehead, Meyler has the look of a young Kevin Ball, but he is a far more precise passer than the former Sunderland captain ever was. The opener stemmed from his wit and ambition, as he squeezed a pass through the narrowest of spaces to Campbell. He found Benjani, and when his shot was half-blocked Bent lashed in his 19th of the season.
No 20 came six minutes later, and again Meyler was the instigator. This time he was far more Ball-like, crunching into a challenge. Steed Malbranque, much improved since his switch to the left, gathered, drifted infield and shaped a perfect ball to Bent, who turned inside Scott Dann and shot low into the bottom corner to become the first Sunderland player to hit 20 in a season in the top flight since Kevin Phillips won the European Golden Boot 10 years ago. More importantly, it should preserve Sunderland's Premier League status.
Referee: Peter Walton
Man of the match: Gordon
Match rating: 8/10
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