SUNDERLAND Reserves’ title challenge suffered a setback as a more experienced Fulham side edged a narrow win at the Academy of Light yesterday.
Keith Bertschin’s men would have regained top spot in the Premier Reserve League (North) had they won, but now Manchester United will move five points clear – with two games still in hand – if they beat southern division leaders Aston Villa tonight.
Sunderland missed strikers Ryan Noble, who has joined Hartlepool on loan, Jordan Cook, who was having talks with Carlisle, and Oumare Tounkara, who was away speaking to Hull City.
Consequently, the hosts lacked resources up front.
In contrast, the Cottagers included Kerim Frei, who has made several first-team appearances and, although only 18, featured in the Londoners’ Europa League run. The midfielder was outstanding throughout and was behind many of the visitors’ best moves.
After a cagey opening, Fulham took a 20th-minute lead. A free-kick was awarded just outside the box near the goal line and Frei drove across to the far side where Josh Pritchard was unmarked to volley in, the strike being slightly deflected en route.
The Black Cats composed themselves and grafted back well to equalise four minutes before half-time after pressurising the visitors defence into a defensive mix-up.
Fulham keeper Csaba Somogyi came rushing out and got too close to defender Rafik Halliche, who attempted to head back to him. The ball evaded the keeper and ran on for Adam Mitchell to anticipate well and slot home into the unguarded net.
After the break, Fulham’s Pajtim Kasami rattled the bar with a free-kick, before, on 58 minutes, they regained the lead.
The hosts didn’t pick up a runner and this allowed Rhys Williams to pounce on a loose ball in the area and drive home low, just inside the far post for what turned out to be the winning goal.
Young sub Carl Lawson nearly levelled when he slipped the ball past the keeper but just wide. Then Roarie Deacon worked a good position for himself but went for the near post, only to hit the side netting.
Ten minutes from time, the same player raced away down the left after winning the ball but keeper Somogyi intercepted his cross to the advancing Lawson, who was bearing down on goal and ready to convert.
It was the Wearsiders last chance, but they had competed well to keep the result in considerable doubt until the final whistle.
Sunderland coach Bertschin said: “It was a really sound effort from a young team up against a side like this.
“They learn and develop a lot from games like these and against such opposition.
“We created several chances and put pressure on them at times.
“Of course, you like to win but sometimes you learn more despite losing.”
Fulham coach Ray Lewington added: “It was a really good game between two passing teams. I think we slightly shaded it.”
SUNDERLAND RES: Pickford, Marrs, Callaghan, Gorrin, Bagnall, Watson, Mitchell (Holland 77), Oliver, Laidler (Lawson 58), Deacon, Honeyman. Subs not used: Gibbons, King, Martin.
FULHAM RES: Somogyi, Harris, Briggs, Halliche (Passley 81), Burn, Prichard (Christensen 51), Williams, Frei, Smith, Kasami, Tue Na Banga. Subs not used: Smith, Grimmer, Barroilhet