Sunderland 3 Oxford United 1: Lynden Gooch, Aiden McGeady and Max Power seal big three points
Sunderland kept their automatic promotion hopes firmly alive with two late goals to win an open and often contentious clash with play-off hopefuls Oxford United.
The Black Cats had to fight back from going a superb James Henry goal down in the first half to win, Lynden Gooch restoring parity just before the break with a deft finish after a moment of magic from Jordan Jones.
A red card for Mark Sykes in the second half proved to be the defining moment of the contest, as Aiden McGeady and Max Power scored late on to settle what had been a tense and close contest.
Tempers had frayed and that continued through the second half, Oxford boss Karl Robinson showed red for his protests after McGeadys’s goal.
That edge was summed up when Power celebrated his stoppage time breakaway right in front of the away dugout; the points finally secured on what had been a chaotic second half.
Though late goals for Peterborough United and Hull City slightly took the edge off the win, it was an afternoon in which the Black Cats faced a difficult opponent and came through, ensuring their fate is firmly in their own hands.
Sunderland’s form coming into the game had been superb but Oxford’s previous visits to the Stadium of Light under Robinson warned against any complacency.
Robinson’s side have always been difficult opponents with plenty of pace and that proved to be the case right from the off here.
The Black Cats did forge the first real chance of the game with the kind of clever set piece that has become something of a trademark in recent weeks. There were only ten minutes on the clock when Aiden McGeady cut a low corner to the penalty spot, where Jones was waiting unmarked. On his weaker right foot Jones scuffed his effort, allowing Oxford to clear.
The visitors showed they had a threat of their own though Lee Burge went through the opening stages untested. Sunderland were pressed with intensity and intelligence as they struggled to carve open any real openings.
On 20 minutes that pace in the away side came to the fore in a superb team goal. It began with a Sunderland break, Jones and McGeady just taking too long to get their passes away and allowing Oxford to recover.
Left-winger Brandon Barker burst through the middle of the pitch, powering away from the two onrushing Sunderland players. He picked his pass perfectly, teeing up Henry who had been allowed to advance unopposed down the right. Henry took his shot early, leaving Burge with no chance as he drilled a low effort into the far corner.
Sunderland had plenty of possession in response, but their decision making in the final third was lacking. Both Gooch and McGeady snatched at chances from distance when a touch more composure was needed, but Johnson would have been encouraged by the fact that his side looked to at least be growing into the game.
They almost found an equaliser when Wyke won a free kick 25-yards out, McGeady’s effort saved high to his left by Stevens in the Oxford goal.
The away side look to have come through a period of Sunderland pressure but with just seconds of the half to play, O’Nien released Jones down the right with an excellent switch of play.
The Rangers loanee still had it all to do, but controlled the pass and burst past Hanson with a wonderful piece of trickery.
Gooch backed into space well and turned the low pass past Stevens from barely a yard out.
It had been a difficult half for the Black Cats against a smart opponent and the equaliser could not have been better timed.
The intensity of the game spilled over at the break, aggro between the two sets of staff as they headed down the tunnel. After stern words from the referee the second half started with Oxford in the ascendancy, the home side fortunate that centre-half Atkinson was unable to connect with a corner at the back post.
Sunderland were being pulled out of their defensive shape too easily, and it took them a while to reassert themselves.
The game was becoming increasingly open, and the balance of the side shifted in three chaotic minutes around the hour mark. Sunderland surged forward from what as an initially threatening Oxford attack, McGeady springing Wyke free with a perfect through ball.
Atkinson denied Wyke with a stunning recovery tackle just as the striker prepared to pull the trigger, and the Black Cats were imposed as the away side poured forward. The ball was fired into the box and as O’Nien cleared, Sykes clattered into him as tried to win a 50/50. Having already been booked in the first half, the referee had no choice but to send off the forward.
Sunderland went close within minutes, Gooch firing a low effort wide of the far post as they looked to turn the screw.
Johnson sensed an opportunity and gambled, dropping Gooch into right back and bringing on Stewart, who almost scored with his first touch as a front-post header was saved by Stevens.
Jones then crashed an effort off the crossbar as Sunderland broke, with Gooch perhaps the better option as he poured forward on the overlap.
Oxford looked overrun for the first moment in the game, though when the goal came it was not without controversy.
Sunderland won a foul and took it quickly, playing in Gooch who drove into the box. His pass to the edge of the area of found McGeady, who nervelessly rolled it into the far corner. The away side were incensed as they had a player down injured as the quick free kick progressed.
Robinson was shown red for his protests as an acrimonious contest continued.
Oxford responded strongly, but the points were secured in the dying seconds as Sunderland broke and Power steered an effort through Stevens.