FOR all of the far-flung nationalities that make up Manchester City’s lavishly assembled League of Nations, Sunderland were last night left to curse an assassin reared on their own doorstep for denying them their first back-to-back victories for 15 months.
Adam Johnson was born in East Durham, his family remain regulars at the Stadium of Light and he might even have been wearing the red and white of Sunderland if it weren’t for the mesmerising lure of City’s Arab millions in the January transfer window. But his return to the North East came laced with disappointment for Sunderland, who saw their almighty effort come crashing to the ground after Johnson’s sublime curling shot crafted Roberto Mancini’s misfiring millionaires an injury-time equaliser.
Steve Bruce can spot a player and not for nothing was Johnson’s name at the top of his January wish-list. With seconds on the clock, Craig Gordon looking impenetrable and Sunderland’s players flinging tired limbs in front of anything, the 22-year-old came up with a moment of magic that deserved its reward of a point.
Given Manchester City’s dominance of the second half it was a just denouement to a stirring game but the timing of the goal, compounded by a serious injury to Kenwyne Jones, will leave Bruce once again cursing his misfortune.
That is ten points Sunderland have now surrendered in the final ten minutes of league games – a worrying statistic but not something that should completely overshadow another encouraging week. The Sunderland agenda dominated by talk of Ellis Short’s financial largesse but in truth their emergence from a brutal mid-winter slump has been a tale of the emotional investment of the Stadium of Light faithful.
The fans never betrayed their impatience even during the darkest days and displays like this are deserved recompense for putting up with some often insipid displays during a barren winter.
Buoyed by ending their long wait for a win, Sunderland began with the adrenaline of their thumping midweek victory still coursing through their veins.
For the first 45 minutes this was a perfect example of the Bruce philosophy writ large. Sunderland dealt in the currency of high-tempo pressing and quick, direct passing – and just like it had against Liverpool and Arsenal, it reaped brilliant rewards.
Surprinsingly the Black Cats’ patched-up midfield of Irish rookie David Meyler and a half-fit Kieran Richardson bested their visitors’ expensively assembled engine room with their tigerish intensity, while their back four smothered the threat of Carlos Tevez and Craig Bellamy. The crude long balls that scarred their last Sunday outing against Fulham were also refreshingly absent; replaced by the dash of two wingers high on confidence and willing to run at a creaking Manchester City defence.
Crucially they again wrestled an early advantage courtesy of some supremely effective wing play by one of those revitalised wide men – Steed Malbranque.
The mercurial Frenchman is enjoying perhaps his best spell since signing for Sunderland and when the ball was rolled to him he curved an arcing cross into the penalty area for Kenwyne Jones to rise above Nigel De Jong and apply an emphatic headed finish.
A minute later, it looked like the implacable John Mensah might have handed Manchester City an immediate chance to reply when he casually swept a lackadaisical back pass into an inviting area for Carlos Tevez to run on to.
The Argentina striker seemed to have the march on the Sunderland back four but Michael Turner came across to sweep up his mess – drawing a clumsy foul from Tevez in the process.
It was a rare moment of indecision by the Ghanaian, who alongside Turner was able to marginalise that traditional Mackem menace Craig Bellamy for most of the first half. Neither he nor Tevez were given much of a sniff while Sunderland were working hard to create opportunities for their forward players.
And they were having plenty of joy down the right, where Fraizer Campbell and Alan Hutton were combining to thrilling effect.
Half an hour on the clock, Mancini took action. He replaced the limping Wayne Bridge with Roque Santa Cruz and switched to a more orthodox 4-4-2 formation to try and put pressure on a hitherto unruffled Black Cats back four.
Manchester City couldn’t possibly perform as badly in the second period and sure enough, they posted a marked improvement directly after the break.
Sunderland were forced to sacrifice goal scorer Jones to injury at the interval and although that meant the welcome return of Jordan Henderson, it disrupted their momentum and crucially swung the game back into the lap of the Citizens.
The fizzing chemistry of Jones and Bent was gone and Campbell, so effective on the right of midfield, was virtually anonymous as Sunderland took time to re-focus minds after the break.
A re-energised City capitalised on the uncertainty, carving a trio of excellent close range opportunities through Roque Santa Cruz, Bellamy and Wright-Phillips that Craig Gordon did well to repel.
The competitive juices were flowing again in the previously lethargic City players – a point emphasised by Barry’s testy reaction after giving away a free-kick to Meyler, an ugly shove which he was cautioned for.
The game was getting tighter but when Manchester City did find a way past the inspired combination of Mensah and Turner, they found Gordon in superb form. Bellamy – an increasing influence as the second half wore on – found a way past Ferdinand and flashed a magnificent low ball into the path of Tevez, but his snap shot was denied by the Scot’s legs.
The same story was repeated on 80 minutes when Bellamy outstripped the excellent Hutton before slamming a fizzing low drive goal-wards. Somewhat unwittingly Gordon made it a hat-trick of saves in injury-time when Bellamy’s deflected shot struck his legs and it looked like Sunderland might have done enough.
But when Bellamy’s subsequent corner was only half-cleared, Johnson picked up the loose ball and flicked an exquisite shot over the head of a despairing Henderson and into the top corner of Gordon’s net.