Season Review: December

by Stuart Vose / Ashley Houghton

Black Cats end 2012 in form.

Sunderland sat just outside the Barclays Premier League relegation zone at the start of a packed December featuring seven games – four of those at home.

Martin O’Neill’s side made the long trip to Norfolk for a Sunday-afternoon clash with Norwich and returned north on the wrong end of a 2-1 scoreline.

A lacklustre first half saw the Canaries open up a two-goal lead as Sebastien Bassong turned home a free-kick from close range after just eight minutes.

The visitors looked dead and buried when Anthony Pilkington steamed through to double the advantage, but Craig Gardner fired in from just outside the box moments before half time.

And the Sunderland camp were left scratching their heads as to how they didn’t claim at least a share of the spoils as Gardner smashed a free-kick against the post before defender Matt Kilgallon blazed the rebound over an open goal.

And the significance of the misses wasn’t lost on Gardner, who said afterwards:

“In the second half we were the better team and created chances – I had one cleared off the line and hit the post, Killa hit one over, Sess could have scored – I could go on.

“We need to stand up and be counted and take our chances. We can't keep doing this after games, saying 'it'll come, it'll come'. We need to make it come.”

Next up was a difficult home encounter with third-placed Chelsea, who arrived on Wearside with new boss Rafa Benitez looking for his first league win in charge.

The Spaniard got his wish as the Londoners took a stranglehold on the game thanks to two first-half goals from Fernando Torres – the first a well-struck effort from close range, the second a penalty.

Torres was denied a hat-trick by the crossbar before Juan Mata made it 3-0.

Adam Johnson did pull a goal back for Sunderland, who featured Connor Wickham up front in the absence of the injured Steven Fletcher.

And boss O’Neill was pleased with the young striker, who made his first start in almost a year.

“He’s got the physical attributes and he knows what qualities he needs to add to his game,” he said. “I thought he did well.

“He was up against Gary Cahill, an England international, and David Luiz is a very fine defender.

“I didn’t think that Connor was ever outmuscled by them. He’s still learning and the test against Chelsea was good for him.”

The pressure was on Sunderland in the re-arranged midweek game against second-bottom Reading, who had endured a tough start to the season having taken only nine points from 15 games.

But the Black Cats delivered, buoyed by an early – and vital – goal from James McClean.

The winger marked the anniversary of his senior debut for the club by firing home after just three minutes.

Fletcher, back from injury, made it two with a lovely back-heel and Stephane Sessegnon wrapped up the points when he broke clear late on to slot home.

Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet made a couple of impressive saves to maintain his clean sheet and was pleased with his side’s efforts.

“Three points, a clean sheet at home and three goals – that’s what we needed and everyone did their jobs tonight,” he said. “Early goals haven’t happened too often this season but it made the game easier for us.”

Following the win over Reading, the Black Cats faced a tough trip to Barclays Premier League leaders Manchester United.

The Sunderland side contained two former Red Devils with John O’Shea and Fraizer Campbell both returning to their old stomping ground - the latter scoring the Black Cats’ sole goal as United ran out 3-1 winners.

Robin van Persie, Tom Cleverley and Wayne Rooney netted for Sir Alex Ferguson’s side who recorded their fifth consecutive league win.

Wickham, who replaced Fletcher at half time, was encouraged by his side’s second-half display at Old Trafford.

“I thought I did quite well and it was a better performance in the second half,” the England U21 international explained.

Sunderland went into the festive period knowing points were a must if they were to advance into mid-table heading into the New Year.

And O’Neill’s side duly delivered with a 1-0 win at Southampton where almost 2,000 Black Cats fans saw Fletcher strike again.

Following the win over Nigel Adkins’ side, boss O’Neill was full of praise for the travelling support that made the long trip south.

"The amount of fans that followed us down was absolutely phenomenal, especially when it’s only three days until Christmas,” he said.

"They epitomise the football club and it was important for us to get the win for them today."

Barclays Premier League champions Manchester City visited Wearside on Boxing Day and it was their former man Johnson who proved the match-winner to give Sunderland a 1-0 victory in front of over 42,000 at the SoL.

Johnson spotted Joe Hart out of position and beat his ex-colleague with a delightful shot from way out on the right wing.

And the former City man was delighted to get the win over his former club.

“It was a fantastic three points against a team who are the champions,” the England international said. “There was a fight in us. We worked so hard as a team and got our rewards for that work.”

The final game of 2012 saw Sunderland host Tottenham Hotspur, who had scored in all their previous away games, and Andre Villas-Boas’ side would continue that record on Wearside as an unfortunate Carlos Cuellar own goal and Aaron Lennon strike cancelled out O’Shea’s opener.

O’Neill was pleased with the effort of his players who suffered the effects of playing their fifth game in 18 days.

“It was a good effort from the players. Maybe they were feeling the effects of Boxing Day a little, especially with 10 minutes to go; we needed a second breath to get at them.

“We stuck at it right to the end, still putting pressure on Spurs.”

The defeat left the Black Cats in 13th position as they entered the New Year.