AFC Wimbledon 1 Sunderland 1: Cats held to frustrating draw in Alex Neil's first game
Sunderland’s automatic promotion hopes ebbed away further on Saturday afternoon as they were held to a 1-1 draw in Alex Neil’s first game as head coach.
The Black Cats had fallen behind through a hugely controversial penalty, but restored parity when Alex Pritchard scored another superb free kick just before the break,
In truth the 1-1 scoreline was a fair reflection of what was a low-quality contest, Sunderland unable to forge many clear chances through the second half.
AFC Wimbledon were value for their point, the lack of confidence in Sunderland’s attacking play once again exposed.
Neither side were helped by an overly interventionist approach from the referee, who struggled to get any control of the contest and handed out a staggering 12 yellow cards.
Goalscorer Luke McCormick was shown red late on but it was too late to alter the end result for Sunderland.
Neil had limited time to work with his squad ahead of the game, and so it was no surprise that his tweaks to the side were relatively minor.
Carl Winchester was deployed at the base of midfield, with Alex Pritchard moving out wide in a 4-3-3 shape. While there was a welcome return to the starting XI for Bailey Wright, that was tempered by the fact that he directly replaced Danny Batth, who was absent from the squad through injury.
Sunderland did look relatively resolute through the opening stages, though they were creating little.
It was a fairly tepid contest, the first meaningful effort coming on the fifteen-minute mark as Ethan Chislett drifted a shot from the edge area well wide of Anthony Patterson’s far post.
There was little between the two sided, though the hosts arguably had just about the better of it and a questionable refereeing decision gave them the advantage five minutes later.
Sunderland switched off at a throw in as AFC Wimbledon took it long and early, and while there was no doubt that Jack Rudoni’s cross struck the arm of Callum Doyle, the defender was at most a yard away and so it was hard to know what he could have done to avoid it.
McCormick made no mistake from the spot, firing down the middle of the goal.
As has been the case too often this season, the Black Cats looked as if they might buckle after that setback. The hosts went within inches of a second when Patterson clawed a corner off his line, getting up to make a superb save from Sam Cosgrove on the rebound. It still looked as if it would lead to a goal, but the defender could only blaze over the bar from close range.
The Black Cats were labouring, Stewart isolated up front and Pritchard unable to affect the game from out wide.
When he did, it led to the equaliser ten minutes from the break. The attacking midfielder burst infield, drawing the trip on the edge of the box. From there he made no mistake, curling the ball into the top corner just as he had done days earlier.
It was the boost Sunderland needed before the break, but Mark Robinson’s side responded well.
They arguably had a far better shout for a penalty when Rudoni went down under a challenge from Jack Clarke, but this time the referee waved play on.
Brown then drew a decent save from Patterson as he took aim from a long-range free kick, Sunderland going into the break still very much in the game but with much to improve.
Neither side was really able to get in the ascendancy as the second half began, though the visitors slowly began to play their way into it and had the first half-chance when Cirkin fired over the bar from the edge of the area.
They forged an even better opening moments later when Pritchard was able to drive at the heart of the defence, but Stewart’s first touch inside the box was not quite clean enough and the hosts were able to clear.
Sunderland were on top without being able to really test Tzanev, so Neil rolled the dice and introduced Jermain Defoe, the Black Cats moving into a diamond formation for the final quarter of the game.
AFC Wimbledon had one corner aside been unable to force any saves from Patterson but Sunderland’s search for a winner left space on the break, the lively Assal firing one from one promising counter down the left.
It was the hosts that were looking the more dangerous heading into the final ten minutes, Patterson making a good save to deny Assal from the edge of the box.
The Black Cats came through that spell and went close through Matete and Wright, but even the second yellow to McCormick was not enough to change the final score as the hosts saw through five minutes of stoppage time with ease.
AFC Wimbledon XI: Tzanev, Nightingale, Marsh, Cosgrove (Cosgrave, 78), Assal, Chislett (Hartigan, 76), Rudoni, McCormick, Heneghan, Osew, Brown
Subs: Broome, Alexander, Mebude, Kalambayi, Cosgrave, Tomas
Sunderland XI: Patterson; Hume, Wright, Doyle, Cirkin; Winchester (Evans, 62), Neil, Matete; Clarke (Defoe, 62), Pritchard, Stewart (Roberts, 73)
Subs: Dajaku, Embleton, Xhemajli, Carney
Bookings: Heneghan, 25 McCormick, 43 Winchester, 45 Clarke, 53 Osew, 57 Matete, 65 Chislett, 68 Evans, 74 Wright, 80 Defoe, 83 Neil, 90 Assal, 90
Red Card: 90