Date: 9th January 2006 at 5:26pm
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In an effort to build up morale, Mick McCarthy revealed this week that he constantly reminds his Sunderland team that they are the 20th best team in England. Taking this scale into contention for this 3rd round FA cup tie at a sparsely populated Stadium of Light, Northwich Victoria are currently the 117th ?best? team in England, 4 divisions and 97 league places behind Sunderland.

Despite their awful run in the Premiership of late, there was no excuse for a slip up.

And no excuses were needed, as Sunderland cruised past their non league opponents in a comfortable 3-0 win, with goals from Neil Collins, stand-in captain Dean Whitehead and loan forward Anthony le Tallec.

The words ?cruising, ?comfortable? and even ?win? have rarely been used to describe a Sunderland performance this season, but despite their pitiful position in the league, their was no doubting who were the Premiership side (if only for a few more months) once the game was underway.

The gulf in class was evident almost straight from kick off, when le Tallec was only inches from collecting an Arca through ball that would have seen the Frenchman one on one with Vics keeper Kristian Rodgers after only 50 seconds on the clock. However it did not take much longer for the deadlock to be broken when Neill Collins fired in from 6 yards just 5 minutes later. The defender had been recalled from a loan spell at Hartlepool and was thrown straight in the side alongside Stubbs due to suspensions to centre backs Gary Breen and Steven Caldwell.

Yet the victory might not have been so comfortable for the Black Cats had keeper Kelvin Davis not been on hand to make two smart saves minutes before the half time interval.

First he reacted superbly to a deflected Brayson free kick to turn the ball round the post, then blocked well when tricky winger Carlos Roca played in Jonny Allan. Northwich were left to rue these chances only minutes later when Whitehead doubled Sunderland?s lead. Whitehead began the move from the edge of his own box and combined with Liam Lawrence and Jon Stead in a show of superb counter attacking football Mick McCarthy dreams of being able to re-create in the league.

Stead?s assist made up for a chance he was unfortunate to miss moments earlier, when he was only able to guide the ball onto the outside of the post after an Arca drive had stung the fingers of Rodgers.

Determined not to give up, Northwich came out for the second half with renewed energy and vigour and if not for another save from Davis and a goal line clearance from Hoyte to deny the ever impressive Roca, their 4,000 travelling fans would have had an FA cup goal to cherish.

After their early second half flirt with Sunderland?s goal Northwich were from then on camped in their own half as the home side demonstrated their superior class and fitness. In particular the increasingly influential Lawrence was involved in most of Sunderland?s best chances and le Tallec?s 70th minute strike could well have been joined by several others. Stead?s search for his first Sunderland goal continues after a combination of ill luck and lack of composure meant that once again the striker would end the game goalless. However he claimed his second assist of the game as his darting run on the left flank resulted in the cross that eventually found an unmarked le Tallec who made no mistake from only yards out.

Substitute Murphy missed a gilt edged chance with minutes to go and Lawrence hit the bar with an exquisite lob, but while a win by a larger margin would certainly not have flattered Sunderland in terms of chances created, it would have been a little hard on Northwich, whose players and manager can feel proud at their valiant efforts and application on the pitch.

The FA cup may prove a welcome distraction for McCarthy and his players, if only to regain some confidence and erode some of the losing mentality currently pervading the club. However next Saturday sees Sunderland back in the big league, against a side a pole apart from today?s plucky non-leaguers. Something tells me the words ?cruising? ?comfortable? and ?gulf in class? may pop up again?Sunderland?s next opposition ? Chelsea.
By Alexis James
By Alexis James


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