The Sunderland revival was stopped in its tracks today as the Black Cats slumped to a 1-0 loss away at an impressive West Ham.
By no means a classic, the game’s opening first 15 minutes was nothing to shout about, though the encounter did open up after quarter of an hour.
Mark Noble was first to hit the bar with a rasping effort, a feat which was soon replicated by the opposition in the shape of Wahbi Khazri, who struck the top of the goal frame with a clever free kick.
Around the half hour mark, the industrious Michail Antonio collected Sam Byram’s hopeful ball forward and made the most of some lax Black Cats defending.
The summer signing, who really is growing into this Hammers outfit, bamboozled past Patrick van Aanholt, who really should have cleared his lines, before slotting home a cool finish into the bottom left corner of the net.
The visitors were by no means done yet and conceding actually seemed to help their cause, looking far more urgent after the half an hour mark.
Jermain Defoe, who enjoys a good record against his former club, squandered perhaps the best chance of the game to level the scores.
The games are running out for Sunderland and Sam Allardyce, who will at least be pleased about his reception back at Upton Park.
Having left under acrimonious circumstances last term, he was barely welcomed back with open arms, but there was no distinct petulant booing from the home support.
So, the Irons are now into fifth and above Manchester United, while Sunderland remain in the drop zone and are second from bottom.
What else did we learn?
West Ham’s transfer activity has been hailed over the past couple of seasons, though Dimitri Payet clearly takes the lions share of plaudits.
While that’s all well and good, the arrival of Michail Antonio from Nottingham Forest in the summer has been a great bit of business.
Coming from a non-league background and working his way up the English league system is really paying off for the 26-year old.
He’s a robust winger, tracking up and down the right flank with his direct pace and physical style of play.
Crucially, the former Sheffield Wednesday star had the quality to make the most out of the Black Cats’ comical defending when it mattered.
Michail Antonio has now scored 4 goals in his last 9 Premier League games dating back to December 28th. Great form. pic.twitter.com/ZVXWwMWluF
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 27, 2016
The arrival of the aforementioned Khazri, as well as Lamine Kone, in January clearly had an impact on Wearside. Both men have adjusted to life at the Stadium of Light, proving key in decent results against Manchester United and Liverpool.
Still, much of that impetus appeared to have evaporated today. Too often did the team look flat and timid when on the ball, looking as if they are destined for mid-table, rather than fighting for their lives.
Much like Aaron Cresswell on the opposing flank, Sam Byram has taken to the Premier League well since stepping up from the Championship.
The 22-year old is a major improvement on Carl Jenkinson in the right-back berth, despite the Arsenal man’s form last term. Like his teammate on the left, he’s proven to be utterly dependable.
All too often do full-backs forget how to defend effectively, though the former Leeds man proved today he is just as capable when doing the dirty work as he is pushing forward.
However is scouting these players at Upton Park is doing an excellent job.
Unlike many of their relegation rivals, the Black Cats boast a truly top finisher in Jermain Defoe. So we keep hearing, anyway.
Ok, to be fair, the former England international is a top finisher. However, perhaps he is not the talismanic presence he’s been perceived as in recent times.
At Spurs and Portsmouth, he was revered as a top striker, though never the man likely to grab teammates by the scruff of the neck. Rather, he would cooly slot home like a silent assassin.
Fair enough. All well and good when a team is creating a number of chances per game. However, in this particular incarnation of a Black Cats side, the service really is poor.
Meaning he must take every chance he gets. Today, the 34-year old squandered a glorious chance to level the scores, when the pressure was on.
West Ham are now into fifth place, trailing behind Manchester City in the final Champions League spot.
While it’s perhaps a touch to optimistic to say the Hammers will break the top four this term, the club are in no better position to enter their new home next season.
Much of the talk surrounding the stadium move was making sure the club retained Premier League status. Now, it is certainly is feasible that the Olympic Stadium will take the Irons up another level.
Currently, the level up is the Champions League. Should they continue the way they’re going, it would be hard to write them off entirely as an exciting new era dawns.