IT MAY only have been nine months, but much has changed at the Stadium of Light since Darren Bent took Aston Villa’s 80,000 pieces of silver. Saturday’s see-sawing game showed the positives of Sunderland’s new look have been balanced out by negatives.
Those supporters who mentally turned the clock back to the time when they were cheering, not jeering, Bent saw a team far less reliant on one man for its goals, but without him they need more just to avoid defeat.
Sunderland again showed their determination to fight back from adversity, but manager Steve Bruce must be wishing they would not. In the last four games, his team have scored four equalisers. There was no repeat of the dozy starts which scarred otherwise impressive performances against West Bromwich Albion and Arsenal, but sloppiness nevertheless gifted Villa a head start.
That the Black Cats had to wait until the 88th-minute to level a second time made a point sweeter than it ought to have been.
When Bent wore red-and-white, Plan A was to get the ball to Darren and hope he scored. Plan B was ... err ... throw on a beach ball? A miserly defence ensured it often worked, if only at home. In his 63 appearances, Bent scored 36 of Sunderland’s 76 goals, sitting them pretty in the European places in the first half of his two campaigns, only to drop away alarmingly – once with him, once without.
On Saturday Villa showed they could score twice despite their No 9 seemingly having put his shooting boots on the wrong feet. Bent was anonymous but for one chance, yet fans who booed him mercilessly have seen that plenty of times, and celebrated him converting the solitary opportunity.
A one-two with Gabriel Agbonlahor allowed Bent to pick his spot. Substitute Keiren Westwood dived the wrong way, but stretched out his left foot. It was Westwood’s first Premier League save, and it may be some time before he produces a better one. With Simon Mignolet concussed and his nose badly broken after colliding with Emile Heskey at a corner, the former Carlisle United man could get a run of games to finally take his top-flight chance after three years as one of the Championship’s outstanding goalkeepers. There was not much more sympathy for Bent in the dressing rooms than on the terraces. “They do not come any easier than that,” said captain Stiliyan Petrov. “Nine times out of ten Darren would have put that away,” Sunderland’s Kieran Richardson added.
A second-minute nutmeg on Michael Turner hinted at great things, but Mignolet got there first. His miss apart, Bent’s only contribution was a debatable shove on Wes Brown which put him clean through. Play was stopped before Bent could try to keep his cool in an extremely hostile stadium.
Bent (pictured right) has always been only as good as his service. Well marshalled by Richardson, Charles N’Zogbia seemed interested only in cutting in for his customary goal against North East opposition, while Heskey looked every bit the square peg in a round hole on the left, and switching him with Agbonlahor nullified one of Villa’s in-form players with little gained in return.
Booing former favourites can often be counter-productive, but the fury directed at Bent may have helped Sunderland. With eight defeats in 11 post-Bent league games before Saturday, the Stadium of Light has not been a happy home and between them Bent’s reappearance and the previous week’s win at Bolton Wanderers took agitated minds off Sunderland’s shortcomings there.
As well as a first sighting of Bent the Villan, Saturday was also the first time Sunderland’s new attacking combination had been seen on Wearside. Connor Wickham scored a maiden Premier League goal and his mere presence allowed Nicklas Bendtner to roam to good effect. Sebastian Larsson’s first thought was firing in crosses from his favoured flank. Since being shunted aside because his lack of goals no longer justified a place at centre-forward, Stéphane Sessègnon has scored two in two. He was crucial to three of the game’s four goals.
The pitfalls of playing Sessègnon wide were evident before the positives. His lazy refusal to track back left Alan Hutton an embarrassing amount of space when Agbonlahor switched the play. Brown, who had somehow swapped positions with Richardson, failed to close the former Sunderland loanee down. Hutton squared to Petrov, who made space for a fine opener.
Wickham’s rifled equaliser owed much to Sessègnon’s turn and clever reverse pass. “Connor Wickham is as fast as lightning...” Sunderland’s fans sang, commandeering Bent’s old chant. Although Wickham’s effectiveness was minimised by spending too much of the second half wide trying to counter Villa, it was an encouraging full home debut.
Richard Dunne looked to have made amends for last year’s own goal here with a more positive winner five minutes from time, nodding in after Agbonlahor collapsed under minimal Larsson contact.
Sunderland, though, had the last laugh when Dunne fouled near the touchline. When the Black Cats finally prised the ball from him, Sessègnon – the smallest man on the field – headed in Larsson’s free-kick.