MARTIN O’Neill claimed last week the final two games of the Premier League season would not determine the future of any Sunderland player.
Which was a good job for some of them yesterday because there were a few in red and white well below par and, had this had been a genuine audition for next season, would not be getting a callback. And, guess what, the biggest failure lay in the one area O’Neill has publicly admitted he will strengthen in pre-season – up-front.
Sunderland’s main problem against Fulham was that whenever the midfield four or Stéphane Sessègnon had possession and were looking to get the ball into a danger area, nobody was there. That makes life pretty easy for opposition defences.
Over the past six weeks, too few have been tested by Sunderland’s formation of a lone front-man whoever that may have been. South Korean Ji Dong-Won got a rare start yesterday and actually did okay when he got the ball, showing some nice touches and good link-up play.
But Ji replaced by Niklas Bendtner (pictured right) after an hour, never looked like scoring. Fulham did almost every time they went near Sunderland’s goal.
And then when there was eventually a frontline of two, Bendtner and Fraizer Campbell, both missed chances, with the later culpable for two sitters.
Something the manager didn’t let pass without comment after the game. The scoreline was close, although that was more down to some good Simon Mignolet saves and desperate defending. And O’Neill at least did see his team score an excellent goal – although that did come from his left-back, Phil Bardsley.
Craven Cottage is one of the best places in the country to watch a football match and Fulham have proved themselves to be a top ten Premier League team this season. And to be fair to Martin Jol’s players, they were superior in most departments from the off.
Their passing slick, quick and accurate, with veteran Danny Murphy pulling the strings with seemingly little effort. Sunderland were given an early warning, after four minutes, when the first but by no means last testing cross from Duff brushed the top of Pavel Pogrebnyak’s head when he looked favourite to score.
Two minutes later and it was Duff himself who had a shot after his run into the Sunderland penalty box was picked out Murphy’s 45-yard pass. The Irishman took a touch, only to see his effort beaten away by Mignolet.
But it was only a matter of time before the home side broke the deadlock. Sunderland skipper Lee Cattermole conceded a free-kick 25 yards from goal when, rather needlessly, he illegally impeded the run of Mahamadou Diarra. It was going to take something special to score from there, and that’s exactly what Clint Dempsey did, curling a superb shot into the top corner for his 23rd goal of an exceptional season.
Stephane Sessegnon should have equalised two minutes later. He timed his run to perfection as he read Cattermole’s defence splitting pass. A first-time shot would surely have beaten Mark Schwarzer, but he checked back and his delayed effort was straight at the keeper.
Fulham could do little about the equaliser which came about on 33 minutes. Bardsley started the move with a burst down the left, he passed to Colback, then Ji returned the ball into Bardsley’s path and he fairly belted the ball home from outside the box.
However, Fulham scored again straight from kick-off.The Sunderland players still looked to be congratulating themselves for getting back into the game as they allowed Mousa Dembele to stroll forward from the halfway line without having to deal with a challenge.
He got to the edge of the box and his shot, which did take a deflection off Michael Turner’s knee, beat Mignolet at his top right hand corner.
Fulham could easily have got one more before the break, Duff hit the side-netting, and only a brilliant tackle by Matt Kilgallon prevented Dempsey from getting off a shot from 12 yards after he dribbled past too many Sunderland players.
It was more of the same in the second-half. On 51 minutes, John O’Shea did well to deflect a Pogrebnyak shot over his own bar and from that resultant corner Jack Colback, on the line, stopped Dempsey’s shot from hitting the net. And then before the hour mark, Duff rattled the post with a rasping low effort as the visitors struggled to get out of their own penalty area, never mind half.
Mignolet was the reason the home side didn’t get a third. On 72 minutes he saved well with his feet from Dembele.
But the thing is that Sunderland should have equalised. With 15 minutes to go, Bendtner’s effort from inside the box lacked accuracy and conviction, when he really should be hitting the target at the very least.
But it was Campbell, thrown on for the last 20 minutes, who was the real guilty man. Twice in the last five minutes he had clear shots on goal and twice he didn’t finish the job. His second opportunity, in injury time, should have been buried as he had the whole goal to aim for from tan yards and he hit it right at Schwarzer.
O’Neill didn’t learn anything new in the capital that he didn’t already know.