Sunderland move to within three points of top spot after battling to victory at Oxford United
A goal barely a minute into the contest from Jordan Willis put them in front and thereafter their discipline and grit earned a crucial three points in the race for automatic promotion.
Though their main rival mostly took three points, a defeat for Peterborough and a draw for Rotherham United means the Black Cats are now just one win off the top.
Pre-match talk had been dominated by talk of Storm Dennis, and though conditions worsened significantly as the game developed, the game was able to start with little concern and though the Kassam Stadium has not proved a particularly hospitable ground for the Black Cats since they dropped into this division, they started with a poise and confidence that underlined why they have surged into automatic promotion contention.
Phil Parkinson again named an unchanged team and they began in outstanding fashion.
Good passing play opened up the pitch for Lynden Gooch, who picked up the ball in space and drove towards goal. He timed his pass outside well, and though Denver Hume took perhaps just a little too ong, his low shot forced a corner.
Chris Maguire whipped a terrific corner into the near post where Jordan Willis had done well to get ahead of his marker. His composure made all the difference, nodding a deft corner towards the back post and leaving the goalkeeper with no chance of making a save.
Oxford responded well, moving the ball between the lines and getting a lot of joy down the left flank.
Willis’ contributions at the other end were equally important as he stepped in to snuff out the dangerous as the home side created some dangerous overlaps, with Cameron Brannagan a threat in possession.
The first opening for the home side came from a Sunderland error, though Matty Taylor had done well to put Bailey Wright under pressure as he tried to deal with a lofted pass through the middle.
His attempted header back to Jon McLaughlin was just too short, but the Scot was alert and did well to block Taylor’s firm effort from close range.
Sunderland were relieved minutes later when Mark Sykes found himself in space at the byline, but his cross was poor and Willis was able to clear with Taylor lurking just yards from goal.
It was an open and engaging contest, but soon began to settle into an altogether more sedate rhythm.
Sunderland were increasingly happy to sit in and allow Oxford most of the ball, but their discipline out of posession was excellent and they gave very few openings to Karl Robinson’s side.
The home crowd were increasingly becalmed as their side probed with little joy.
It was not until just before the forty-minute mark that they threatened again, Ruffels again in space at the back post. He headed a cross back across goal but again it just evaded Taylor and the danger was cleared.
Though the Black Cats were putting in a controlled display, the lively Daniel Agyei was causing a few concerns, showing good control and a willingness to use his pace to try and stretch the game.
It took an excellent covering challenge from Tom Flanagan to prevent him shooting preventing from a dangerous position just before the break.
Sunderland were pleased with their efforts, though perhaps conscious too of the need to make more of their counters.
They had got into some good positions later in the half but struggled to convert it into real chances to double their lead.
Storm Dennis took hold during the interval but abated just a touch as they action restarted, and Oxford looked a threat as they pushed for an equaliser. Wright had done well to clear a very dangerous cross from the right but the ball fell for Ruffels, who unleashed a terrific volley that McLaughlin had to do very well to push over the bar.
Luke O’Nien then had to clear an effort from Rob Dickie away from the line as the home side began to take control.
Parkinson shuffled his pack, bringing on Josh Scowen for Gooch.
The academy graduate has been in excellent form but struggled against the outstanding Dickie and the Black Cats began to offer a threat on the break, with both Maguire and Hume unfortunate that a couple of good crosses just couldn’t find a team-mate.
Oxford continued to push, and the introduction of Marcus Browne gave them an added threat that tested the Sunderland backline.
The Black Cats continued to battle hard and almost scored the crucial second goal when Wyke nodded a free kick from deep just wide of the post.
Oxford bombarded the box but Sunderland held their nerve and despite an injury to Wright, they held on for a deserved win.
Sunderland XI: McLaughlin; O’Nien, Willis, Wright (Ozturk, 83), Flanagan, Hume; Power, Dobson; Maguire (Lafferty, 85), Gooch (Scowen, 58), Wyke
Subs: Burge, McLaughlin, Watmore, Semenyo
Oxford United XI: Eastwood; Dickie, Mousinho, Moore, Ruffels; Brannagan, Henry (Mackie, 88), Sykes (Holland, 77), Henry, Forde; Taylor, Agyei (Browne, 61)
Subs: Stevens, Long, Mackie, Hanson, Thorne
Bookings: Brannagan, 90
Attendance: 9,105 (1,776 away)