THE day after Children in Need, here was Sunderland in need.
THE day after Children in Need, here was Sunderland in need. They still are, if a little less so.
While good enough to be the better team locked in stalemate, the Black Cats still lack the key to prise one open into victory.
Both managers admitted as much in the aftermath, Steve Bruce again drawing attention to the strikers at his disposal, and those he could call on a year or so ago.
Now that is not to denigrate his current crop, because he did describe Darren Bent, Asamoah Gyan, Danny Welbeck and Fraizer Campbell as “arguably the best the club’s ever had”.
And inarguably, compared to Nicklas Bendtner, Stéphane Sessègnon, Ji Dong-Won and an injured Campbell, Connor Wickham likewise, the previous lot were a surer guarantee of goals.
Lest we forget, Sebastian Larsson is the Black Cats’ leading scorer. With three. And he is a midfielder. Who was suspended.
So neither wonder Bruce also admitted that a new forward is “the one thing that we’ve got to address” come January.
By then, this run of four games – Saturday’s at home to Fulham, more against Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers and a trip to Wolves – will be history, and Bruce may be glad of as much.
The trouble with so-called must-wins is that, in a manner of speaking, you can only lose.
Like being the favourite in a cup-tie against minnows, win and you merely satisfy expectation, and who can get excited about that? Win, move on. Next.
Fail to do so, however, and the pressure escalates.
And so it goes; Wigan, this coming Saturday, now becomes even more of a must-win, and the most viscous of circles endures.
That – that this present run of games against opponents modest and nearby in the table constitutes for Sunderland a grand opportunity to garner points – is the theory.
In practice, there are of course few if any easy games in the Premier League. Especially, for Sunderland, against Fulham. The Wearside outfit have now won only three of 15 Premier League meetings with the Cottagers, and scored in just six of those.
They have failed to score in six of their last seven against them, including the latest five.
And since the last seven games between these two have produced a grand total of – wait for it – five goals, is it any wonder the Stadium of Light remained goalless on Saturday?
Is it remotely surprising, in these days when final-whistle boos are nigh-on the norm wherever a home side fails to win, that 4.45pm on Saturday was greeted with a brief burst of half-hearted discontent? At least the temporarily aggrieved had some consolation, and with it, hope.
For while a point was better for Fulham, Sunderland did – as they have done lately – play well.
Two games into his Premier League career, Keiren Westwood looks to the manor born, and the back four were scarcely troubled.
In midfield, Jack Colback has an air of calmness belying his age.
And pleasingly in attack, albeit perhaps with Brede Hangeland in mind, the Black Cats rarely went long.
More often than not they played into the feet of Nicklas Bendtner, around whom Stéphane Sessègnon buzzed, but to better effect when displaced wide left later on. Then, he might have won it right at the death but for a miraculous save – unwitting or otherwise – by Mark Schwarzer, but Sunderland may believe they ought to have had victory wrapped up long beforehand.
Inside four minutes Phil Bardsley let fly, wide, from distance, and after Moussa Dembélé had outwitted Lee Cattermole and Michael Turner to fire straight at Westwood, the hosts’ level of control intensified briefly, then increased more circumspectly. From Sessègnon’s cross Kieran Richardson headed against the bar and after Damien Duff’s clearance was stifled, Jack Colback rattled the same metalwork with a fierce drive.
Less thrillingly, Sessègnon then headed at Schwarzer, and though showing admirable patience, the sense was clear that – lacking just enough care in their final pass, and just enough magic when it matters – Sunderland had not made the most of their superiority.
Before the game, Turner had spoken of the need to capitalise on “good spells”, but on this evidence, the suspicion remains that his side are still narrowly short of doing so consistently.
When that happens, the danger is never far away of sporadically-threatening visitors edging fleetingly into proceedings and stealing a winner, and that possibility reared its head just before half-time.
From a Duff cross, Bobby Zamora’s header was deflected behind by Bardsley, and from the resulting corner – Duff’s centre again – former Sunderland star Dickson Etuhu saw his header nodded off the line by Cattermole.
A goal then might have been an injustice, and another followed immediately after the interval.
A harsh free-kick against Wes Brown, for a challenge on a theatrical Zamora, who ought to come with his own offside flag, saw Chris Baird take aim and force a fine save by Westwood, low to his left. But thereafter, Sunderland once again began to control things, if not command them.
Chris Baird cleared Brown’s header, Sessegnon stabbed wide before Danny Murphy drove benignly at Westwood from the edge of the box.
And then an admirably bold move by Bruce – replacing a midfielder, Colback, with Ji Dong-Won, a striker – saw Sessègnon, wide left now, almost find Bendtner with a gift of a cross before lobbing over himself.
Later, Andy Johnson sliced a shot off target and Bendtner headed straight at Schwarzer.
But later still, both sides enjoyed – but were denied – their best openings of the game. Breaking two-on-one from an 86th-minute corner at their own end, Dembélé fed Clint Dempsey, yet with only Westwood to beat, the American steered his effort across the face of goal and wide.
And deep into added time at the opposite end, Philippe Senderos’ deflection seemed to have wrong-footed Schwarzer and sent Sessègnon’s strike beyond him.
Somehow, though, the Australian keeper’s trailing right boot remained in the way and, with most in attendance breathlessly poised to celebrate, hacked the ball to safety.
It sort of summed up the day.