Sunderland seal a crucial and hard-fought win over Portsmouth

Sunderland got their League One campaign back on track with a narrow and hard-fought victory over Portsmouth on Saturday afternoon.

Lee Johnson’s side had laboured through a nervy start to the game but took the lead through Elliot Embleton’s excellent close-range finish, a reflection of the way their pressing began to pay off as the first-half developed.

Though they struggle to carve out significant chances in the second half they were much the better side, Danny Cowley’s side losing the spark from the early stages of the game and unable to forge any notable save from Thorben Hoffmann in the Portsmouth goal.

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As well as taking three crucial points, the Stadium of Light support will have been encouraged by a superb debut from Danny Batth, who produced a dominant display in the heart of defence.

Elliot Embleton celebrates his first-half goal

While the arrival and availability of Batth had been a significant boost for the Black Cats, there were other issues to contend with.

Bailey Wright and Alex Pritchard both missed out due to injury, leading Johnson to match up Portsmouth’s five-man defence.

Patrick Roberts was not deemed fit enough to take a place in the matchday squad, while Denver Hume (an ongoing transfer target for Danny Cowley) was absent from the 18.

Sunderland looked out of kilter and confidence from the off, Portsmouth dominating territory and forging the better of the chances.

Ronan Curtis blazed over from the edge of the area, before Marcus Harness missed from an even more promising position not long after. The hosts were adamant that play should have been stopped for a foul on Hoffmann as he looked to distribute the ball, but it was a passage of play that reflected a lacklustre and sloppy start.

A flurry of set pieces caused more problems, Lynden Gooch making a strong clearance from just in front of the line to keep his side level.

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The hosts were presented with an unexpected opportunity when they were finally able to apply some pressure on the ball in the opposition half, Curtis forced into a soft giveaway under pressure from Dajaku. Embleton burst through on goal and opted to take on the shot as Dan Neil raced towards the back post, Bazunu making a strong save to palm the ball well clear of danger.

It was Portsmouth who continued to do most of the running, though, Romeo missing a good opportunity at the back post before another last-ditch block prevented Curtis when a set piece dropped for him kindly.

Half an hour in and the Stadium of Light was understandably concerned by what they were seeing.

Slowly but surely, they were encouraged by signs of life.

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Gooch whipped a tremendous ball to the back post that just evaded Dajaku, Johnson’s side slowly but surely beginning to turn the tide.

The lively Dajaku then pressed well to rob Raggett as Portsmouth tried to play out from the back, but when he arguably should have squared the ball for Stewart he opted instead to go for goal, the ball drifting wide of the back post.

The German’s persistence would be rewarded five minutes later. This time it would be Carter he robbed, Embleton live to the threat and quickly stepping onto the ball. A smart 1-2 with Stewart followed, and from there the youngster made no mistake as he fired a first-time effort across Bazunu.

It had been hard-earned on an again very poor Stadium of Light surface, but the hosts had a lead at the break and their start to the second half was encouraging.

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Though unable to test Bazunu, a drive from the edge of the area from Evans flashed just wide of the far post and was a fair reflection of a bright start to the half.

More good play from Dajaku and Embleton created a half chance for Neil on the edge of the area, but he was always stretching to make the shot and could only fire wide of Bazunu’s far post.

Portsmouth were struggling to make any significant inroads into an increasingly comfortable Sunderland backline, but the narrow scoreline meant it was still too close to call as the game headed into the final quarter.

It had been an insipid second half from the visitors and one that was rather summed up by the chants of ‘we’ve had a shot’ from the away end as Hoffmann was finally forced into a comfortable save with just under ten minutes to play.

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Sunderland’s attacking threat had waned though and they were slowly beginning to be penned it to their own half, meaning a nervy finish looked inevitable.

A soft corner gifted up by the hosts almost proved costly, as George Hirst towered above his marker. Fortunately for the Black Cats he could only head over the bar, and it would prove to be the last significant action as the home side saw out five minute of stoppage time with ease.

Sunderland XI: Hoffmann; Flanagan, Batth, Doyle; Gooch, Neil, Evans, Cirkin; Embleton (Winchester, 82), Dajaku (O’Brien, 88); Stewart

Subs: Patterson, Hume, Xhemajli, Diamond, Kimpioka

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Portsmouth XI: Bazunu, Robertson (Jacobs, 77), Walker, Harness, Curtis (Hirst, 70) , Romeo, Carter, Hackett-Fairchild, Morell, Thompson (Williams, 70)

Subs: Brown, Freeman, Ogilvie, Steward

Bookings: Flanagan, 53 Romeo, 71 Williams, 75

Attendance: 32,220