Rumours of the demise of the Big Sam relegation escapology franchise appear, for now, to have been exaggerated.
At a soggy, fraught Carrow Road Sunderland eased their way to victory over Norwich City that left the home team looking ominously deflated.
Sunderland came to Norfolk four points behind Norwich with a game in hand and just about clinging on by the cuticles. The result here suggests the three-way struggle to avoid joining Aston Villa in the Championship will stretch out into the season’s endgame. The performance, with Sunderland clinical where Norwich were vague, suggests Allardyce may just get to trumpet his record in marshalling escapes one more time.
Fabio Borini converted the opening goal from the penalty spot and the lively Jermain Defoe scored the second, his 10th in 14 away games. Duncan Watmore added a lovely third. The referee, Andre Marriner, also played his part, giving Norwich very little all afternoon.
The result was good news for the north-east generally as Newcastle’s flickering hopes of escaping the drop were also given the faintest breath of oxygen. For Sunderland defeat would have been close to terminal. As it is, they are now lurking only a point off Norwich, buoyed by the decisive nature of this victory.
Outside Carrow Road before kick-off a small clutch of Norwich fans could be heard singing “He’s big, he’s Swiss, he’s bought a house in Diss, Timm Klose.” Unfortunately, Norwich’s best player was absent, having failed to recover from the knee injury picked up against Crystal Palace. Klose is unlikely to play again this season. The slightly hair-raising Sébastien Bassong took his place here and contributed to this result with some slightly frantic defending.
As the teams kicked off the stadium was a febrile place, the air inside this low-rise, clattery corrugated arena crackling with lunchtime anxiety. There was an early sign of tension as both benches rose to engage in a minor scuffle after DeAndre Yedlin was shoved into a rather close advertisement board by the dugouts, with Allardyce himself wading into the middle of the melee. “I was defending my box,” Allardyce said afterwards. So much for the Friendly Cup.
Sunderland set out in a rigid-looking 4-1-4-1, early attacking intent limited to long diagonal passes towards Defoe. Robbie Brady hoisted one tasty-looking cross towards Dieumerci Mbokani. Jan Kirchhoff, a vast ambling midfield-pylon, got to grips with the roving Steven Naismith.
Steadily Sunderland did begin to press at Norwich’s soft centre. Albeit the opening goal on 41 minutes arrived more or less from nowhere, a penalty awarded correctly for Andre Wisdom’s stamp on Borini’s ankle under a bouncing ball. Alex Neil suggested Wisdom touched the ball first but a stamp is still a foul, ball or no ball. Borini got up and planted the kick firmly to John Ruddy’s right, before haring off to the corner flag to celebrate wildly in front of the home fans.
Neither team deserved to take the lead at that stage, Sunderland probably less so. But the goal was reward for some lively movement from Borini, who may lack composure when it comes to shooting, but moves with an intelligence and energy a cut above anything else on show here.
The ground went quiet under the teeming rain as the away fans bellowed and danced. Neil responded by bringing on Nathan Redmond for Brady at half-time, and Redmond made his presence felt, clipping the outside of the post with a low drive. Almost immediately, Norwich were punished again.
Kirchhoff shouldered Bassong off the ball: possibly a foul, more likely just a strong challenge. Having strayed so far from the middle Bassong really had to win the challenge. Albeit, Sunderland’s ruthlessness in punishing a momentary slip was thrilling, perhaps also a little baffling for the fans who have followed them around the country all season. Kirchhoff fed Borini, whose low cross was weighted perfectly for Defoe’s sprint into exactly the right place to poke the ball home.
As Norwich pressed Marriner waved their claims away twice as Mbokani was hauled down by Younès Kaboul. The first should have been a penalty. Mbokani was making space to shoot. The second was a grapple at a corner, shortly before Lee Cattermole cleared off the line.
Norwich’s fans slumped further in their seats as Cattermole organised the Sunderland resistance to a series of energetically vague attacks, with Naismith a disappointment as a wandering No10. And by the end Norwich looked like what they are: a game, spirited team lacking real incision, undone by moments of class from wasteful but narrowly more thoroughbred opposition.
Whatever happens from here the Sunderland survival blueprint is hardly stirring. Ellis Short once said he would “appoint the devil” if it mean keeping Sunderland in the Premier League but even the Lord of the Flies himself would probably purse his lips and look a little askance at the jumbled cut-and-shut incoherence of Sunderland’s acquisitions’ policy over the last few years. Here at least they looked like a team with a plan, and enough razor edge to claw their way out of trouble. For Norwich this was an afternoon that plunged Neil’s team back into peril.