SUNDERLAND finally got their first win of the season with an emphatic display against a Stoke side who looked as if they were mentally still in Kiev.
Questions were being asked of both sides before this game – Sunderland in terms of ending this barren spell that has plagued them since their opening-day draw at Liverpool, and Stoke in how they would manage juggling Premier League action with their European adventures.
In the end, it was the Black Cats who ticked all the boxes as they showed a grit and determination not seen since that second half at Anfield last month, with the midfield – Sebastian Larsson in particular – bossing their opponents around.
Stoke, meanwhile, found out that if you want European football, then brace yourself for the fatigue that comes with it.
They looked slow and off the pace, as if still bemoaning Dynamo Kiev’s late Europa League equaliser three days earlier.
Their European dilemma, though, is a problem Sunderland long to have.
The hosts got off to a dream start in four minutes when Larsson’s corner picked out the unmarked Titus Bramble on the edge of the box. The defender’s low half-volley took a slight touch off Rory Delap, but Stoke keeper Asmir Begovic looked set for a comfortable save, only to let the ball squirm under his body and creep over the line.
It got even better for the Black Cats seven minutes later with Larsson again the provider – although a Stoke defensive error once more proved to be the decisive factor.
From midway inside the Stoke half, Larsson spotted Nicklas Bendtner’s run and whipped in a dangerous-looking cross. Stoke centre-half Jonathan Woodgate spotted it and chased back to prevent the Danish forward receiving the ball but in doing so, the former Newcastle man headed the ball past Begovic for an own goal.
Stoke, clearly suffering a hangover from Thursday’s jaunt to the Ukraine, finally woke up and put Sunderland under pressure.
They were unlucky in 14 minutes when Simon Mignolet spilled a Delap long throw into the path of Robert Huth, only for an outstretched Black Cats leg to block his effort.
Mignolet atoned for his error soon after. First he pulled off a superb save at full stretch to deny Ryan Shawcross’ free-kick from going in and then did well to bravely save at the feet of the onrushing Cameron Jerome.
But that proved to be a storm in a tea-cup as Sunderland restored normal service, with their third goal in 28 minutes having a ring of familiarity about it.
Bendtner cut in from the left and he played in Craig Gardner. The midfielder then unleashed a left-foot shot from the edge of the box, and Huth’s block only served to send the ball spinning over a despairing Begovic and into the net.
Stephane Sessegnon was the next to try his luck. The Benin ace was sent flying down the left by Larsson. He cut inside past two Stoke defenders only for his shot to be well held by Begovic.
Given how Sunderland had been finding the net prior to this, he probably should have tried to hit it off a Stoke player.
Stoke came close to pulling one back before half-time when Peter Crouch got on to Marc Wilson’s long ball, but Mignolet did well to clutch onto his header. It did look as if the second 45 minutes would peter out into a stroll in the park given Sunderland’s flying start, but nobody had told Larsson. No doubt to give his fine performance the gloss of a goal for himself, the Swede offered his services for a free-kick after Sessegnon had been brought down on the edge of the box by Huth.
Larsson duly curled a delightful shot around the Stoke wall and past the outstretched Begovic for a sublime goal to make it 4-0 in 58 minutes – and no deflection needed this time around. Stoke were lucky not to be down to ten men when Huth’s swung his arm back at Bendtner – a blow that promptly floored the on-loan striker.
However, much to Huth’s luck – the German had already been booked – neither referee nor linesman saw the incident.
Crouch – pursued by Sunderland in the transfer window – showed the Cats faithful what they were delighted to be missing when Jon Walters’ cross picked him out in the six-yard box only for the England cap to swing at fresh air as the ball drifted out harmlessly for a goal-kick.