Guts, character, a wonder goal and late heroics: Matt Scrafton's verdict as Blackpool boost play-off hopes with massive win against Sunderland
What a goal. What a win. What a night.
Just as the nerves were beginning to jangle following back-to-back defeats, the Seasiders go and produce a heroic performance like this.
While we can all pick holes, critique and scrutinise displays, team selections and tactics, one thing you can’t question is the character of this Blackpool side.
There was no finer example of this than at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday night, where Chris Maxwell turned into Superman and the men in front of him threw their bodies on the line over and over again to thwart Sunderland’s late onslaught and claim a vital victory in their quest to finish in the top six.
And what a way to win it. Sullay Kaikai’s thunderbolt was a strike worthy of winning any game of football.
Heads could easily have dropped after the setbacks against Rochdale and Shrewsbury Town, but that’s not in the make-up of Neil Critchley, his staff and his players. The manner in which Pool have not just survived, but thrived in the face of injuries and Covid this season has already proven that.
Heading into this game, the Seasiders hadn’t lost three games on the bounce all season and there was absolutely no chance that was about to change. Pool made sure of it.
A disciplined, measured and, most notably, gutsy display completed a first league double over the Black Cats in 63 years after beating Lee Johnson’s side by the same scoreline at Bloomfield Road just 10 days earlier.
Pool really do rise to the big occasion, don’t they? That bodes well should they finish the job and end the season in the play-offs, which now looks more likely than ever thanks to this exceptional victory. Results elsewhere went their way, too, courtesy of some late drama at The Valley and Crown Ground.
Critchley’s troops have now completed doubles over Sunderland, Peterborough United and Portsmouth and taken four points from Hull City, Oxford United and MK Dons.
When you knuckle down and analyse the statistics, Blackpool’s record against the better sides really is remarkable. They’ve picked up 41 of their 71 points against teams in the top half. Ipswich Town are the only side in the top 12 to beat them home and away.
Being a side that is so good out of possession, that lends itself to playing against sides like Sunderland who want to get on the ball and dominate. When the onus is on Pool to break down stubborn defences, that’s when problems arise – as we saw in their recent defeats.
But that’s not necessarily what happened here. In fact, Critchley wanted to wrestle and wrangle control from Sunderland in response to the first game between the two sides earlier this month, where the Black Cats enjoyed large swathes of possession and had the Seasiders pinned back in their own half for much of the game.
Pool’s head coach achieved that by changing the system, lining up with three centre-backs in a league game for the first time this season. It was a brave call, but it paid off.
With the match-winner Kaikai playing off frontman Jerry Yates, that saw Pool flood the midfield, denying the hosts any space to play in by almost lining up in a 5-4-1 when defending. Then they would spring forwards into a 3-5-2 when counter-attacking with pace.
It was a clever tactical switch and it clearly proved effective, with Sunderland struggling to create anything of note during a dour first-half.
Pool weren’t constantly banging on the door either, but you sensed they would get opportunities and the counter-attack did prove fruitful, even if they couldn’t quite capitalise.
After both sides cancelled each other out during a dire opening 45 minutes, the game finally sprung into life in the second period.
Maxwell denied Max Power before making his first save of many saves from 30-goal striker Charlie Wyke, before Aiden McGeady saw a shot deflect over from a promising position.
But the Seasiders saw off Sunderland’s brief spell of pressure and responded with chances of their own, Yates almost bursting through on goal while Ollie Turton had a goalbound shot blocked behind.
The decisive moment came from the resulting corner, where Luke Garbutt’s delivery was partially cleared to the edge of the box.
Not a great deal seemed to be on for Kaikai, but the ball sat up nicely and the forward decided there was only one thing for it: leather it towards goal as powerfully as possible.
Kaikai caught it perfectly and his rocket thundered into the top corner of the net, giving keeper Lee Burge no chance whatsoever. Bosh.
The goal handed the Seasiders all the momentum and they enjoyed a 15-minute period where they could, and perhaps should have capitalised on their dominance and added a second. They certainly had the chances on the break.
But while it remained 1-0, you knew the home side would retaliate late on and that’s exactly what happened. Pool faced a barrage of pressure, but they stood up to the challenge and came through it unscathed.
Things did look a little hairy at times though, especially when a cross fell kindly for Wyke just six yards out. The striker met it well and directed a header towards goal. It seemed inevitable that this would be the goal that rescued Sunderland a point.
Maxwell had other ideas though, flinging himself across goal before somehow having the strength of one arm to claw the ball off the goalline. Simply remarkable.
In the fifth minute of stoppage-time, another cross bobbled just wide of the far post after flicking off the unknowing James Husband. Watching from up high in the press box, it seemed to take an eternity for the ball to saunter towards goal – as if we were watching a slow-motion replay.
Thankfully it went the right side of the post and wide. That was that, Pool had clung on for a crucial, crucial win.
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