Sunderland 4, Barnsley 2
(SkyBet League One)
Three goals behind after only 32 minutes, Barnsley staged a spirited fight-back against second-in-the-table Sunderland at the Stadium of Light and for a spell in the second half it looked as though they might possibly snatch an unlikely point.
However, it was not to be. The home team weathered the storm before adding a decisive fourth goal from a breakaway seven minutes from time as the Reds suffered their first defeat in eight games.
This was a fixture which always looked like presenting Daniel Stendel’s men with their toughest test so far this season – and so it proved.
Yet for long spells they were the dominant force, especially after the break, and the outcome was shaped by a dramatic 13-minute period in the first half which yielded all three Sunderland goals.
The Reds started the brighter, some delightful one-touch passing moves raising hopes that their aim of leapfrogging over their opponents into that second spot would be successful.
Cameron McGeehan fired over after an interchange of passes with Kieffer Moore and Dimitri Cavare tested Sunderland goalkeeper McLaughlin with a long-range effort.
However, when Josh Maja was left unmarked to head over the bar from six yards – he should have scored – it was an example of some of the slipshod defending which was to contribute to the side’s downfall.
Not that there was anything slipshod about the sliding tackle which saw Ethan Pinnock rob Aiden McGeady when a long clearance sent the striker scurrying goalwards – it looked like a perfectly fair and crucial challenge – but referee Andy Madley had a different opinion of the incident and awarded a penalty, which McGeady himself converted.
Less than 60 seconds later the Reds lost possession and Maja wrong-footed Pinnock before curling a shot just inside the post for his 12th goal of the season. When a Lynden Gooch effort from the edge of the box was deflected past Adam Davies in the 31st minute the game looked as good as over.
But whatever faults this Barnsley side might have – and there was some poor defending on this occasion – a lack of heart is not one of them.
From that moment on they made a praiseworthy fight of it. They were given the spur they needed when Moore (pictured) forced the ball over the line at the second attempt four minutes before the interval and Cauley Woodrow went within inches of pulling another goal back when he hit the woodwork in stoppage time.
The Reds were again in the ascendancy at the start of the second period and it was no more than they deserved when Moore notched a second goal just after the hour mark, heading home at the near post from one of seemingly countless Alex Mowatt corners.
Indeed, official statistics revealed that the Reds had a total of eight flag-kicks, compared to Sunderland’s two. Not only that they had 58 per cent of the possession and had 13 attempts to the home team’s eight.
But goals win matches. And that was the one statistic that favoured the Black Cats.
As the game entered its closing stages the Reds were still persistently pressing for the equaliser, but, as so often happens in such circumstances, they were over-stretched on one conclusive occasion seven minutes from the end, and Sunderland put the result beyond any further doubt when McGready broke away to set up substitute Luke O’Nien for their fourth goal.
Defeat meant that Barnsley slipped back into fifth place and emphasised the fact that they face a tough battle if they are to make a first-time return to the Championship.
But even in defeat there were hopeful signs because the Reds showed that they have the character, the willpower and the resilience to overcome set-backs such as this.
Sunderland: McLaughlin; Matthews, Flanagan, Baldwin, James, Power, Honeyman, Maguire (Sinclair, 84 mins), Gooch (Oviedo, 90 mins), McGeady, Maja (O’Nien, 59 mins).
Barnsley (4-4-2): Davies; Cavare, Pinnock, Lindsay, Fryers (Brown, 59 mins); Potts (Moncur, 77 mins), McGeehan, Mowatt, Thiam; Woodrow (Adeboyejo, 85 mins), Moore.
Referee: Andy Madley.
Bookings: Cavare, Pinnock (Barnsley).