Conor Wickham double lifts Sunderland out of drop zone
Striker keeps up golden run as Cardiff look doomed to go down
Connor Wickham celebrates scoring his second goal with Sunderland captain John O’Shea during the Premier League match at the Stadium of Light. Photograph: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images
Between them the England under-21 striker and the Italy winger cost Sunderland virtually £17 million and were widely written off as expensive mistakes. How wrong can you be? In the last three games Wickham has scored five goals with three created by Giaccherini who has also scored one himself.
Here Sunderland hauled themselves out of the bottom three thanks to Wickham’s two latest goals supplemented by one apiece from Giaccherini and Fabio Borini on a day when courageous refereeing on Phil Dowd’s part left Cardiff reduced to 10 men following Juan Cala’s sending-off late in the first half. By the final whistle Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side had sunk to the bottom of the Premier League table with survival looking all but impossible.
Wickham’s fourth goal in three matches – the first three came against Manchester City and Chelsea – arrived courtesy of a corner won by Adam Johnson and taken by Seb Larsson. When the ball bounced up off the ground, Wickham was well positioned at the far post to sneak in front of Kevin Théophile-Catherine and direct a clever header into the opposite top corner.
Sunderland’s manager would have been quietly encouraged by the increasing quality of Jack Colback’s performance in central midfield. Having identified Gary Medel’s blindspot Colback burst beyond Solskjaer’s midfield anchor before sending a shot curving fractionally wide of a post. A little later Medel’s challenge sent him crashing to earth, earning Sunderland a free-kick and Cardiff’s enforcer a style-cramping, booking.
The next card seen by the visitors was red. As Wickham surged on to Colback’s cute header and into the area Cala, the last defender, tugged his shirt. Creditably Wickham resisted the temptation to collapse in a heap and Dowd played advantage.
Once the attacking move petered out, though, the referee pointed to the penalty spot and flourished that red card. It was excellent officiating. Although Cardiff complained that Cala was marginally outside the box when he extended an arm and snatched at Wickham that gesture sent the striker stumbling into the 18-yard box, thereby affecting his play inside the area.
Judging by Solskjaer’s wry, resigned smile to himself he knew it was the correct decision. Even so the penalty still had to be converted. For the second weekend in a row Borini stepped forward to the spot and for a second time the Liverpool loanee scored, on this occasion using his right foot to defy David Marshall.
Many among the almost 46,000 strong crowd probably had to pinch themselves. Supporting a Sunderland side who had last won a Premier League game at the Stadium of Light in January, when Stoke were narrowly defeated, is not a pursuit for the faint-hearted.
Pessimists in the stands probably exchanged knowing looks as Sunderland began the second half in distinctly nervous mode. Seemingly unsure as to how to approach their 10-men guests – let alone how to cope with the pace of the newly introduced Wilfried Zaha who had replaced Don Cowie at the interval – their earlier poise in possession seemed to have deserted them.
Medel had dropped back into central defence for Cardiff but soon Solskjaer left his team with only two orthodox defenders on the pitch. His need to gamble was such that he replaced Fabio, already booked and in such a strop with himself and everybody else that another sending-off probably beckoned, with Kenwyne Jones.
Now the Welsh side featured two former Sunderland strikers, Jones and Fraizer Campbell but it was Peter Whittingham who gave Vito Mannone his biggest fright.
When Whittingham’s free-kick took a deflection off the wall, the goalkeeper did extremely well to adjust his position and repel the danger. Time and options were fast running out for the man in the adjacent technical area and it was not long before Solskjaer withdrew Campbell in order to introduce Craig Bellamy.
Booing greeted the one time Newcastle United striker’s arrival but another Sunderland substitute stole the limelight. Giaccherini has endured a frustrating season since leaving Juventus last year but he gave Medel the slip before connecting with Borini’s intelligent ball and stroking a shot beyond Marshall.
Gus Poyet finally permitted himself a smile. A torn cruciate ligament means Sunderland’s manager cannot dance at present but the man who had appealed for a miracle compensated by punching the air. There was still time for Wickham to head Giaccherini’s corner home. As the banners said “Miracles Happen Gus.”