Cheltenham Town 2 Sunderland 1: Season slumps to new low after third straight defeat
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The night had started positively for Sunderland, with refreshed starting XI taking a well-deserved lead into the break thanks to a stunning Alex Pritchard free kick.
What they produced thereafter was nothing short of dismal.
The home side were gradually able to play their way back into the game, twice scoring to leave the Black Cats looking over their shoulders iat the lower end of the play-off spots.
Once again Sunderland looked short of leadership and inspiration as they laboured in search of an equaliser.
The task now handed to the new head coach looks a vast one, with time to make a substantive impact rapidly narrowing.
In ten days their hopes of making the top-two have just about collapsed, this the lcear low point of the new ownership to date.
Dodds had responded to that insipid defeat against Doncaster Rovers by reverting to a back four, and making a number of significant changes.
Two of those were enforced, with Thorben Hoffmann and Lynden Gooch both unable to take their place in the matchday squad, but there were also first starts for Jack Clarke, Jay Matete and Trai Hume.
Though the tempo from both sides to begin with was tentative, Sunderland looked more comfortable in their more traditional shape and Clarke in particular was bringing some welcome dynamism from the left flank.
He was within inches of scoring the opener five minutes in, robbing the Cheltenham centre-back in possession and firing at goal from the edge of the area. The option to play the pass inside would perhaps have been the better one, but it was a fine run infield and his eyes were only ever on his first Sunderland goal.
More good play on the left flank from the Spurs loanee saw Stewart strike the bar at the back post with a firm header, though the offside flag was raised shortly after.
It was unsurprisingly a significantly more low-key occasion that Saturday, Cheltenham offering little threat but by and large keeping their opponents at arm’s length.
That began to change midway through the half, Sunderland slowly but surely beginning to build pressure.
Charlie Raglan went close to an own goal when heading over his own bar under pressure from Stewart, and moments later a clever early pass from Evans saw Pritchard go close form the edge of the box.
Evans went close himself from a similar distance after an excellent move, Sunderland sweeping the ball from the left flank inside, and the experienced midfielder’s effort was only just wide of the far post.
Cheltenham were struggling to get out of their own third, and would soon be behind.
It was the quietly impressive Matete who started the move, playing a clever 1-2 with Stewart and driving through the middle of the pitch. When the ball broke free on the edge of the area, Pritchard pounced to pinch it off the toe of the defender. A foul was given, and the attacking midfielder stepped up to curl a superb effort into the top corner from 20 yards.
Sunderland were dominant, Evans produced a superb save to deny Dajaku’s header after a good cross from deep on the right flank.
The hosts had barely threatened in a tepid first-half perfomance, but the narrow scoreline meant there was still much work for Dodds’ side to do after the break.
They stared brightly enough, but one or two moments of loose play allowed Cheltenham to get into some dangeroua areas for the first time in the game. Patterson remained largely untested aside from claiming on or two crosses from deep with ease, but some of the poise from the first half had gone missing.
That slackness was punished with just over half an hour to play, a long-range effort from Bonds taking a deflection off Corry Evans, wrong-footing Patterson and flying into the net.
A contest that was lacking a spark suddenly ignited, May firing at Patterson before good play from Hume down the right led to Stewart firing an effort into the side netting.
In truth it was ultimately a tame response from the visitors, Cheltenham going close from a corner as Dodds turned to his bench and introduced Roberts with fifteen minutes to play.
The momentum had long-since drifted from Sunderland’s game, and they fell behind when Cheltenham again found it far too easy to break through the middle of the pitch. Etete released May in the right-hand side of the box, and his strike looked to take another deflection as it beat Patterson and flew into the bottom corner.
The introduction of Defoe did bring some impetus, the striker drawing a stop from Evans as he made a good run off the shoulder of his marker, but Sunderland were struggling for inspiration as the full-time whistle approached.
Though they dominated possession and territory in the final minutes, the hosts were able to hang on with relative ease for three crucial points.
Sunderland XI: Patterson; Hume, Batth, Doyle, Cirkin; Matete, Evans (Embleton, 84) ; Dajaku (Roberts, 75), Pritchard, Clarke (Defoe, 80); Stewart
Subs: Wincester, Xhemajli, Neil, Carney
Cheltenham Town XI: Evans, Pollock, Raglan, May, Boyle, Blair, Bonds, Ramsey (Sercombe, 72), Williams (Freestone, 80), Etete, Colkett (Wright, 60)
Subs: Freestone, Williams, Hutchinson, Flinders, Soule
Bookings: Boyle, 15 Batth, 50 Roberts, 88 Matete, 89