A hard won win which showed why we just might be title contenders this year, but also why we might just fall short. However, if anyone still had any doubts that we’ll finish in the top four by the end of the season, today’s performance will have definitely made them think again.
Rocked by injuries to Gareth Bale and Jermain Defoe before the game, two key ingredients in the eleven game unbeaten run, and having to cope with the unjust suspension of our most consistent central defender this season, we were at least able to welcome back club captain Ledley King to the centre of defence.
The early loss of Aaron Lennon to a hamstring injury and a customary slow start didn’t bode well for kick-starting our Christmas run of games after that travesty of justice that was the loss to Stoke last weekend. But we kept patient, we kept plugging away, we didn’t lose hope or composure, even when substitute Super Pav made a hash of his first handful of touches of the ball. Instead of the blistering pace of a winger (neither of whom were on the pitch) or the intricate trickery of Modric or VDV, it was the ball-winning solidity of Sandro and Parker in the middle of the park which kept the spirits up and the shape strong and drove us stubbornly forward until the goal came. And what a moral boosting goal it was in many respects. Just after Sunderland had built up a head of steam and fashioned the odd half chance after the break, Parker wins the ball, feeds in Modric who plays it quickly and precisely up to VDV who puts in Pav. Up until this point Roman’s performance had been nothing short of woeful, but his run off the defender was well-timed and well-angled to give him the space he needed for a precise first time finish across the keeper.
It was a goal to blow out our chests and to burst Sunderland’s inflating balloon. They knew they were unlikely to score now, we knew we could play the game out. Our new found confidence at knocking the ball around to protect a lead was quickly on show, even if Modders really should have put us two up, although Ade gets some blame for not squaring it to him initially. We held on rather comfortably, unlike Tottenham of old, to demonstrate the new found mental fortitude of this team.
The win also showed how strong our squad is and how ready everyone is to contribute crucial performances. Pavlyuchenko was rusty and his weaknesses holding up the ball, a heavy first touch and inability to win headers were exposed on many occasions, but when it really counted his supreme strength won us the game. Sandro came in and made numerous interceptions and kept the ball moving quickly throughout the game. And Gallas looked a much better defender alongside King, as do all of our centre halves.
Due to Roman’s goal we didn’t need to resort to 3-5-3 again, but it might serve us well at times in games over the holiday period if Lennon and Bale are out for long. Let’s hope Andros Townsend can come in and do a job after his sterling performance against Shamrock on Thursday, or Niko Krancjar can provide some width on the right side. Although the midfield diamond we played second half today will cause problems for most teams and provides one of the most solid midfields around perhaps.
On to Chelsea on Thursday. Every game is a big game when you’re trying to qualify for the Champion’s League, let alone win the title, but a positive result today has really set us up for consolidating our place in the top three and looking up North towards Manchester rather than around us at the other London clubs.