STEVEN Fletcher’s eighth goal of the season moved Sunderland four points clear of the relegation zone after triumphing in their crunch basement battle at fellow strugglers Southampton, writes Chris Young.
Fletcher’s strike on the stroke of half-time proved sufficient for Martin O’Neill’s men as they secured a huge result in front of almost 2,000 travelling fans in the pouring rain on the south coast.
It was a game of few chances, although Sunderland could have gone ahead with just 20 seconds on the clock when Stephane Sessegnon was denied by a stunning stop from ex-Black Cats stopper Kelvin Davis.
Sunderland defended superbly throughout and limited the Saints to efforts from long-range, despite a few late scrambles in the Black Cats penalty area.
Danny Rose, who missed Sunderland’s defeat at Manchester United seven days earlier, shook off an ankle problem to resume duties at left-back, with the on-loan Spurs man replacing Titus Bramble in the starting line-up.
Rose’s return saw Jack Colback revert to central midfield, Craig Gardner move to right-back and Carlos Cuellar resurrect his central defensive partnership with John O’Shea.
Top scorer Steven Fletcher was also included in the side after shaking off the back problem he suffered at Old Trafford.
Former Sunderland keeper Kelvin Davis started for Southamptonm, who made two changes from the side which beat Reading a fortnight earlier – Gaston Ramirez replacing the injured Adam Lallana and Emmanuel Mayuka making his first Premier League start at the expense of Jay Rodriguez.
Davis distinguished himself with just 20 seconds on the clock when Rose threaded the ball through to Stephane Sessegnon, midway inside the Sainta half.
Sessegnon span away from Jose Fonte and let fly with a right-footed drive which Davis managed to parry behind with a superb full-length save high to his left.
Moments later, Jason Puncheon screwed a shot harmlessly wide at the other end after Rickie Lambert got away from O’Shea down the left and laid it off to the winger.
Lambert went much close in the eighth minute when he drilled a free-kick from the left of goal into a crowded box which was deflected off Gardner, just beyond the far post.
Davis made a routine save in the 14th minute when Seb Larsson played a one-two from a short corner with James McClean and let fly towards the near post from an acute angle on the left of the area, which the Saints keeper gathered comfortably low to his left.
The Black Cats produced better two minutes later when Gardner whipped in a dangerous cross from the right which was met by Fletcher at the near post, who connected with an improvised volley that drifted just a couple of yards wide.
Ramirez tried his luck in the 20th minute with a dipping shot from 25 yards that had Simon Mignolet scrambling to push it away low to his left.
But three minutes before the interval, Sunderland broke the deadlock as Fletcher bagged his eighth of the season.
Adam Johnson made a good run to drift unmarked to the left and was picked out by McClean’s ball down the channel.
Johnson got his head up and picked out Sessegnon with his pull-back and the Benin international managed to inadvertently direct a shot straight into the path of Fletcher who swept it past Davis from 10 yards.
HALF-TIME Southampton 0 Sunderland 1
Lambert tried his luck just 30 seconds after the interval with a swerving effort from 30 yards which dipped wickedly but still not enough to fall under Mignolet’s crossbar.
But Sunderland went desperately close two minutes later when Gardner burst forward and drilled a ball into the area which somehow missed the outstretched legs of Sessegnon and Fletcher.
Southampton mustered their first chance of the second half in the 62nd minute when substitute Steve De Ridder curled in a corner from the left, which was met by the head of Jose Fonte six yards out.
Fonte’s header was going wide, but Colback made sure in the goalmouth as he deflected it past the post Davis almost gifted Sunderland a second with 14 minutes to go when Gardner unleashed a free-kick from 35 yards which was straight at the Saints keeper, who managed to spill it through his arms, but then prevent it slipping over the line with his trailing legs.
Substitute Guly Do Prado had a chance in the fourth minute of stoppage time but his half-volley was deflected wide from Lambert’s knock-down.
FULL-TIME Southampton 0 Sunderland 1
SOUTHAMPTON: Davis, Clyne, Yoshida, Fonte, Shaw, Cork, Schneiderlin (Davis 60), Mayuka (De Riddeer 55), Puncheon (Do Prado 80), Ramirez, Lambert. Subs not used: Boruc, Hooiveld, Rodriguez, Richardson
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet, Gardner, Cuellar, O’Shea, Rose, Johnson (Campbell 75), Larsson (Bardsley 70), Colback, McClean, Sessegnon (Vaughan 89) , Fletcher. Subs not used: Westwood, Wickham, McFadden, Bramble. Booked: Larsson (45), Johnson (68), Bardsley (79)
Referee: Howard Webb (Sheffield)
Attendance: 31,275 (1,814 away)
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