Sunderland’s unlikely Championship play-off adventure continued with an impressive semi-final first-leg win over Luton Town.
The Black Cats didn’t break into the top six until the last day of the season, but were notable in extending their unbeaten streak to 10 games and ending the Hatters’ 14-game streak.
It all started well for Luton, when Sunderland failed to clear a corner and Elijah Adebayo was on hand to hit the rebound into the roof of the net after Alfie Doughty’s close-range strike was brilliantly saved. by Anthony Patterson.
However, the home side took control of midfield, dominated possession and equalized when Pelly Ruddock-Mpanzu left Patrick Roberts in a heap, Alex Pritchard touched the ball from the free kick and the superb foot curler left of Amad Diallo nestled in the top corner. beyond a static Ethan Horvath.
There was little change in momentum after the break, as Jack Clarke fired wide wide from a Roberts cross, and the provider nearly turned the scorer when his cut and low drive sank just wide. coast.
The goal that had just arrived came when Clarke leaned in on a cross for Trai Hume to fire a header past Horvath to take the lead.
Luton rallied with Sunderland continuing to grind them out at the break, and blocking Clarke to deny the visitors the final kick of the game proved crucial as he put the Wearsiders 90 minutes from a second play-off final in as many seasons.
Confidence flows on proud day for hosts
It felt like a gratuitous success for Sunderland – ridiculous as that sounds – given how they crashed the party on the final day of the season, and their lack of nerves showed with a confident display.
Even when they lost a goal, heads did not roll, whether on the pitch or in the stands, and that solidarity proved essential in a feverish atmosphere fueled by 46,060 spectators.
By contrast, Luton had been planning for this for a few weeks but never quite understood a team that preferred swashbuckling to the sitting position and whose positivity in possession was causing them huge problems.
Having secured a goal by charging the box with their physicality, the Hatters were no longer given such supremacy as Sunderland stripped their supply line and possession and moved the ball sharply across the lines.
After a quiet start and a rip-sniffer goal, Diallo seemed to have a glint in his eye and the magic flowed, as Clarke’s relentless movement down the left, Pritchard’s range of subtle touches and Roberts’ dazzling footwork belied the lack of a “centre-forward” presence.
Credit must go to the makeshift back line, with Luke O’Nien, Hume and Lynden Gooch made up throughout.
Luton know they can play better and will seek the comforts of home when they host the second leg at Kenilworth Road on Tuesday night. [19:45 BST].
For Sunderland, it’s about fixing their battered squad and hoping that Pritchard’s limp at the end is nothing serious for the journey south.
Sunderland boss Tony Mowbray told BBC Radio Newcastle:
“I thought we started really well before the goal, and we talked about trying to get the crowd involved in the game – they were here trying to see the team win a football game and trying to get to a final at Wembley.
“The team started very well, then they scored the goal, but as you have seen, this team does not give up and they are getting stronger and stronger.
“We deserved the win, we had a lot of chances. It’s great when a plan comes together. I think we competed very well, we talked about the youngest team in the league and the lack physical, but we competed very well all over the pitch, the fans rose to the occasion and we were like surly dogs in midfield at times.”
Luton Town boss Rob Edwards told BBC Three Counties Radio:
“It’s half time, we’re in the middle of a draw. It was a tough game as we knew, it was really close as we knew, and it was a fantastic atmosphere as we knew it was going be.
“I thought we had the best of the first half and they had the best of the second. It calmed down before the goal and we had a lot of control, and we were brave with the ball.
“We tried to take it and we still remained a threat, and I was really happy at half-time, but in the second half we had to be better with the ball, we got it and we got it. made too cheap.
“There’s still a long way to go in this area, and I still believe in it.”