IT appears as if the summer can’t come too soon for Sunderland manager Steve Bruce but unfortunately there is still some work to be done. While the pendulum is swinging towards Premier League safety, they are not out of the woods yet.
A stirring comeback last weekend against Wigan seemed to erase all fears of a drop back to the Championship but this defeat – and the manner of it – still have some of a red and white persuasion hoping they can scramble a point or three from their remaining trio of league matches.
Because if the Black Cats do not pick up anything from the nine points up for grabs and the likes of Wigan or Wolves make a dramatic break for it – think of the escapes Coventry used to pull off when they were in the top flight – then what was unthinkable back in January will be very real indeed. Injuries or not, the few who are fit to take the field owe it to those who are not – and themselves – to ensure that next season’s local derby will be against Newcastle, not Middlesbrough.
One case in point is Steed Malbranque. We know he’s not a striker and yes he was playing in a position alien to him last Saturday. However, remember when he first arrived to these shores? When playing for Fulham he weighed in with a handy number of goals from midfield. Thirty two Premier League goals during his five years to be exact. At Sunderland, one Premier League goal in three years is not an acceptable return and as Bruce himself rightly said afterwards, the gilt-edged chance he had in the first-half should have been taken.
Malbranque is not the only one as at the other end, it is painfully obvious that the back four are missing their leader in chief Titus Bramble. When the defence in particular watch the DVD of the match in training this week, the collective groaning and wincing will be loud given – as Bruce stated afterwards – all three Fulham goals could and should have been prevented.
All which seems to suggest that the right attitude was not employed. Far from it as they did pressure Fulham from the start but once the visitors managed to make the break-through, familiar doubts crept back in and the confidence built up against Wigan showed itself to be built on sand.
This match effectively turned in Fulham’s favour shortly after the half-hour mark. Phillipe Senderos’ clearance bounced back off an advancing Malbranque and as the latter left the former for dead in the race for the rebound surely the net would bulge within seconds? Wrong. Forcing the keeper Mark Schwarzer into a fine save you could excuse. Even hitting the woodwork. Neither of those happened and nor did the goal everyone was up on their feet for and about to celebrate. Malbranque produced a finish which can only be described as pitiful as the flimsy contact he made with the ball caused it to spin harmlessly wide.
Two minutes later, the old adage of being made to pay for chances not taken duly floored the Black Cats – although Michael Turner will be one of the aforementioned groaners once he sees this again. Bobby Zamora headed down to Eidur Gudjohnsen in the box. The Icelander played the ball back to him and while he in turn nudged it on to Gael Kakuta, Turner was too easily brushed aside by the French youngster who burst through to prod the ball past Simon Mignolet.
If Malbranque was culpable for a bad miss, skipper Lee Cattermole added his name to the poor-miss catalogue soon after. While he can technically claim to have had a shot on target, he really have ought to have done better when, after being played in by Stephane Sessegnon, instead of smashing the ball past Schwarzer, he simply launched a daisy-cutter which meandered into the Aussie’s hands.
Naturally when a team is a goal down at half-time, you would expect everything and the kitchen sink to be thrown at the opposition. Instead, the listlessness that had shrouded Sunderland in that horrendous run prior to the Wigan victory made an unwelcome return as Fulham began to see more of the ball. The visitors were unlucky not to make it 2-0 in 54 minutes when Gudjohnsen’s half-volley narrowly evaded the sliding Zamora. However, they didn’t have to wait long as after the hour mark, it was game over.
Zamara’s ball over the top looked to be heading for a Sunderland goal kick and the home back four thought so too. Not Fulham’s Steve Sidwell who chased and reached this lost cause to pull it back to Simon Davies to drill in a low shot past Mignolet.
Ten minutes later, Fulham applied the finishing gloss courtesy of some more slack defending. Anton Ferdinand was all at sea to allow Davies to slip in and while Mignolet blocked his effort, the Welshman easily out-paced Ahmed Elmohamady to slide in for the rebound.
The last home game against Wolves is starting to look more interesting than it was last week.