O'Neill continues Sunderland revolution with win at Wigan
Wigan Athletic 1 Sunderland 4: There were three clubs who achieved big wins as the old year turned into the new. It says something for Martin O'Neill's remodelled Sunderland that they won their next fixture while Blackburn and Aston Villa, the conquerors of Manchester United and Chelsea, lost theirs.
This may not have been the last-minute smash and grab that marked their victory over Manchester City on Sunday but the scoreline was misleading, a result of Sunderland snatching their chances while Wigan squandered theirs. It was also significant. The Premier League's smallest club have been a constant irritant to successive Sunderland managers, who had won only two of a dozen previous contests. Their last defeat to Wigan, on Wearside in November, cost Steve Bruce his job.
The transformation may not be complete but it is accelerating rapidly. O'Neill's fourth and biggest win in six games was the work of a patched-up side missing five specialist defenders and played out on a night of high wind and hard rain.
The Wigan manager, Roberto Martinez, argued that Sunderland would have been mentally buoyed by their win over the Premier League leaders but, having played 48 hours before, were prone to weariness. The first goal, therefore, was critical. It arrived in first-half stoppage time. Nicklas Bendtner was fouled some 25 yards out and Craig Gardner, taking the free-kick into the storm, saw the ball curl into the net.
Until then, Wigan had been significantly the better side. Gardner had cleared off the line from Steve Gohouri. David Jones had struck one post while Ben Watson, meeting the rebound, had hit the other, but thereafter they displayed all the defensive looseness that is likely to damn them.
It was never more obviously exposed when Sunderland scored their second, 10 minutes after the interval. That James McClean, a young midfielder signed from Derry City by Bruce but given his debut by O'Neill, was allowed two headers told its own defensive story. Ali al-Habsi saved the first from David Vaughan's cross but McClean kept his cool.
As the conditions eased, Hugo Rodallega turned John O'Shea and saw his shot deflect past Simon Mignolet to halve the deficit. Nevertheless, in pressing forward Wigan left themselves exposed. O'Neill thought it the best win of the four, not because it will stand out like the victory over City but because his young, makeshift team, instead of attempting to protect the lead, counter-attacked with enough verve to settle the contest.
First, Bendtner drove forward to square the ball to Stéphane Sessègnon, whose finish ended the contest. Then he set up Vaughan's fabulous drive that sent large sections of the stadium out into an unkind night.
Man of the match McClean.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee M Dean (Wirral).