A superb second-half performance saw Sunderland overwhelm Athletic Bilbao’s B side and move into the semi-finals of the Premier League International Cup last night.
The visitors dominated the first period, but a goal from Ethan Robson gave them a narrow lead, before Elliot Embleton’s precise strike settled the game just after half-time.
Bilbao’s resistance quickly ended, with winger Inigo Cordoba sent off for an off-the-ball altercation after 50 minutes.
The Black Cats could and perhaps should have scored more as they played on the counter, failing to convert from a number of one-on-one situations.
They will now face either Swansea City or Hertha Berlin in the semi-final.
The visitors started the game by far the brighter of the two, full of fluidity in their movement and composure in possession, even if their first clear-cut chance came from a set-piece.
The corner floated towards the back post, the header weak and straight at Max Stryjek. It looked to be a comfortable enough save, but the Polish stopper could only drop the ball into the path of Bilbao striker Iker Hernandez. His effort was inventive, volleying with his back to goal, but it was always rising over the bar.
Home striker Joel Asoro was isolated as Peru Nolaskoain and Oier Zarraga pulled the strings in Bilbao’s midfield, with the Swede’s only real involvement a heavy aerial clash with centre-half Julen Bernaola.
Sunderland began to grow into the game, a neat interchange between Rees Greenwood and Ethan Robson preceding Thomas Beadling’s cross just being cut out, but the visitors twice came close before Robson’s opener.
The first came as Hernandez sprang the offside trap, taking just one touch before striking a clean volley, though it was straight at Stryjek and an easy save.
Then, a fine move and a one-two on the edge of the area left Unai Nunez, the visitors’ centre-half, to fly into the box and volley wide.
The Black Cats goal was against the run of play, but it was a good move. In a smart build-up down the right, the ball was moved inside to Asoro. His drive was palmed clear but only as far as Ethan Robson, who hammered into the open goal.
That rocked Bilbao, but they finished the half the strongest as Guruzeta broke into the box, only to fire straight at Stryjek.
In stoppage time, they forced the Polish keeper down his right-hand corner, with Hernandez teeing up lively winger Inigo Cordoba. It was a fine save and ultimately the end of the game as a contest.
The Basque side were simply not at the races in the early stages of the second half, Asoro seeing his effort blocked by the keeper’s foot when one-on-one.
A minute later, Elliot Embleton made it 2-0, advancing towards goal and scoring with a precise 20-yard drive into the bottom corner.
When Cordoba was sent off just five minutes later, after an altercation with Beadling that spilled over into both teams, the visitors lost their composure and it could have been a hammering.
Sunderland overwhelmed them on the counter, direct, quick and precise in their moves.
Asoro again found himself one-on-one, this time denied only by an outstanding covering tackle. Then Ethan Robson burst into the box from midfield, denied only by the outstretched boot of Exteberria, in the Bilbao goal, and then the post.
By this stage, Bilbao were essentially operating in a 3-3-3, trying to keep players high up the field to get back into the game. The Black Cats matched that by pushing wingers Rees Greenwood and Luke Molyneux right up alongside Asoro.
They were finding acres of space to attack, the Black Cats always having one man over on the overlap.
Bilbao did threaten once or twice, Nunez heading straight at Stryjek from inside the box and Guruzeta’s cross from the byline just evading his team-mates.
Nunez, playing at the heart of defence, looked as likely as any of the visitors, his looping header from a corner leaving Stryjek back-pedalling, dropping onto the roof of the net.
Their best chance of the second half came just moments from time.
Hernandez, now operating from the right, overhit his cross, but it was moved back into the box where substitute Aitor Seguin was waiting in space.
Rather in line with the Basque visitors’ frenetic showing in the latter period, however, he blazed over the bar.
It was to their credit that they managed to assert some real pressure with only 10 men, but Sunderland never looked threatened and should have added gloss to an impressive win when Greenwood ran through with three on one.
He couldn’t convert ,but the Black Cats stood firm for an impressive win.