One of the things I like most about the EFL is the Easter Weekend double-header. Although I imagine a lot of players and managers feel differently, as a fan having two games in such close succession, in the most important part of the season, is objectively great.
As these double headers go, few will have it bigger than Sunderland this weekend. Thanks to our hard-fought win last Saturday in Bristol, we’ve manoeuvred into a position of prime opportunity heading into two tough, but eminently winnable fixtures.
The first of these is a home tie against hot-and-cold Oxford United. A glance at their form shows them as being able to beat pretty much anyone on their day, but that they are more than capable of turning in a shocker too. Their record against sides above them in the table is poor too, with just two wins so far.
One of our few positive performances of the early season came in the reverse fixture at the Kassam, where Lynden Gooch scored one of our goals of the season in a (relatively) comfortable 0-2 win. It was a scrappy and intense game, not too dissimilar to our game at the Memorial on Saturday (albeit with Oxford being of a slightly higher quality than Bristol Rovers), and I imagine they will set out with something similar this weekend.
There will be histrionics (Karl Robinson seems the league’s biggest proponent of this in his teams, alongside Steve Evans and Mr Barton), time wasting and I suspect their main focus will be on stopping us playing and finding rhythm, while waiting for an opportunity for a counter when they can.
As LJ himself has rightly said, Sunderland have hardly been setting the world alight with our performances recently, but there’s no denying the run we’re on, and how resilient we’ve become. As we at WMS have alluded too, that match last Saturday would almost certainly have been 1-1 under Parkinson or Ross (and maybe even earlier in LJ’s tenure).
The fact we pulled that out having drawn the previous game was possibly the most impressive part – now is not a good time to start a run of draws, so following one up with a scrappy win was the perfect response.
We now need to kick on and put another win on the board – Monday’s game at Peterborough is arguably the toughest fixture we have left this season, and going into that game with a win against Oxford under our belts will do wonders. There’s been a debate about whether we should ‘take’ a draw there or expect to win both of these Easter games. I don’t ‘expect’ us to win both but I certainly think that’s just as likely as we don’t, given the way we’ve been playing and the resilience and grit we’re showing.
Of the two though, Oxford is certainly the one with the smallest margin for error. It very much falls into the category of a ‘if we want to go up automatically, we have to win this’ type game (even though the league table suggests, in fact, we don’t). Momentum is hard to stop in football, especially at this time of the season, and we’ve got it in spades. The lads have shown us multiple times recently they want success this season just as much as we do, and are prepared to put in the hard yards to get it.
Win this game and we’re on the very cusp of the automatic places (if not in them already), and when that happens, I don’t think we’ll leave them again this season. It’s going to be a tough, tough game, but we’ve seen the lads have the minerals for that now. I wouldn’t bet against them, would you?