Sunderland 0 Fulham 0

AT the start of this embarrassing run Sunderland were seen as a good team playing badly, now they just look like a poor team playing terribly.

Danny Murphy of Fulham brings down Sunderland's Kieran Richardson

AT the start of this embarrassing run Sunderland were seen as a good team playing badly, now they just look like a poor team playing terribly.

Perceptions shift with results and Steve Bruce will continue to argue they are just one good result away from rediscovering the confidence which will unlock their dormant potential. His problems, though, are mounting and his critics grow in number and noise with every game they fail to end a winless run which stretches back to the end of November.

In 21 games, Bruce has guided the Black Cats to just two wins, the second of which came at home to non-League Barrow in the FA Cup. With just Andy Reid missing, he no longer has the excuse of injuries and suspensions to fall back on.

There was very little to endear Sunderland to anyone in a woeful first half yesterday, and even their most ardent supporters must be fearful of what horrors await them without a sudden and dramatic improvement in the quality of their performances.

The one overwhelming positive from an otherwise most depressing afternoon was they did not lose, the draw ensuring they remain three points clear of the relegation places.

If there was one other plus point in a depressingly negative display, it was the defence, a back four which at least managed to defend well, albeit against opposition who lacked the ambition to push the numbers forward having only arrived home from a European game in Russia against Shaktar Donetsk in the early hours of Thursday morning.

Considering Fulham have won just once away from Craven Cottage in the league this season this is not quite as complimentary as it should be, but at least it suggests Sunderland are hard to beat even when they have forgotten how to win.

The message emanating from the Sunderland ranks the last few weeks is that it is unrealistic to expect a club fighting for its lives in the Premier League one season to qualify for Europe the next.

It is, but that does not mean it cannot be done. Fulham just about escaped from relegation two years ago under Roy Hodgson and qualified for the Europa League in his first full season in charge.

Pointedly, he also spent considerably less money than Bruce has, although it could also be argued the Cottagers were already an established top flight club after almost a decade in the division.

And then there is Birmingham City to further dent an otherwise sensible argument.

The Championship runners up last season are flying in the top flight and while they may be newly enriched by Carson Yeung’s investment, they did not have that money to spend in the summer, but are still comfortably out-performing the Black Cats.

If expectations are too high on Wearside, as Bruce has suggested, it is teams like Fulham who help raise them.

Sunderland’s average crowd is double Fulham’s and there would be a similar disparity in the money spent on new players since the Black Cats returned to the Premier League. Money times fan base does not equal success, but that does not prevent people from calculating that it does and if this created the pressure on Sunderland’s manager and players in the first place, they have done nothing to relieve it in 2010.

At the moment, Sunderland look like a team without guile, imagination and flair. They are crying out for a creative spark in midfield, having to rely on little more than effort and commitment, qualities that were unable to prevent Fulham knocking the ball around Lorik Cana and Lee Cattermole with assured ease.

A lack of a consistent supply line reduces Darren Bent and Kenwyne Jones to foragers, searching for tiny scraps on a rubbish tip. They are a potentially potent pairing, but they were almost completely impotent against Fulham, with Brede Hangeland and the former Newcastle defender Aaron Hughes dominant.

Neither side had a clear-cut chance in the first period, Jones blasting a rising shot over the bar from the edge of the area after Bobby Zamora had headed Fulham’s best opening wide as he ran on to Simon Davies’ lofted pass.

Mark Schwarzer did need to make a save from a Bent free-kick, but it was a regulation one and things did not get any better after the break in a contest which went from the dull to the tedious.

There were more groans around the Stadium of Light in the second half than the staff room at 10 Downing Street when Gordon Brown’s aides discover the Prime Minister is at home and in a bad mood.

Time and time again, the ball went backwards when it could have gone forwards, before being punted aimlessly in the direction of Jones and Bent by a clueless defender.

Bruce screamed his irritation every time, but the lack of confidence played havoc with his players’ decision making as the closest they came to a chance fell to full-back Alan Hutton, who cut inside before shooting straight at former Middlesbrough keeper Schwarzer.

At least there was something approaching a late rally, with Bolo Zenden – on for the hugely disappointing Cattermole – rolling a shot into the side netting from an impossible angle before firing a low ball across the face of goal, which missed everyone until Hutton arrived at the far post and slide a shot wide.

And, with three minutes remaining, the otherwise anonymous Fraizer Campbell may have snatched the victory Sunderland are so desperate for, but he lifted his shot from 12 yards high over the bar.

We expect better, but he is not the only one we can say that about.

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