Chris Young’s Sunderland-Fulham verdict

Arsenals Theo Walcott and Sunderlands Jack Wilshere (left) and David Vaughan during the Barclays Premier League match at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday February 9, 2013. See PA story SOCCER Sunderland. Photo credit should read: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Editorial use only. Maximum 45 images during a match. No video emulation or promotion as 'live'. No use in games, competitions, merchandise, betting or single club/player services. No use with unofficial audio, video, data, fixtures or club/league logos.
Arsenals Theo Walcott and Sunderlands Jack Wilshere (left) and David Vaughan during the Barclays Premier League match at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday February 9, 2013. See PA story SOCCER Sunderland. Photo credit should read: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Editorial use only. Maximum 45 images during a match. No video emulation or promotion as 'live'. No use in games, competitions, merchandise, betting or single club/player services. No use with unofficial audio, video, data, fixtures or club/league logos.
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AS STEPHANE Sessegnon’s right-footed Exocet arrowed through the November air into the far corner of Mark Schwarzer’s net, it prompted one of the mop-of-the-brow moments of this season.

Relief was evident everywhere.

Sunderland’s players celebrated wildly in front of the away end, the travelling fans puffed out their cheeks and Martin O’Neill clenched his fist at the final whistle 20 or so minutes later.

It was a landmark victory for the Black Cats; a first success on the road for the campaign and a conclusion to a five-game winless run.

Tomorrow’s reverse fixture with Fulham holds equal magnitude.

More than a month has passed without Sunderland managing to smash through the 30-point barrier and those familiar fears of being an outside bet for the drop have returned.

It’s still difficult to envisage the Black Cats being sucked into the dog fight.

Although Sunderland have not produced vintage flair over the last three games, they could easily have taken points from all three defeats and providing they keep creating chances, the victories will come.

But the next three encounters are crucial.

Should O’Neill’s side fail to record less than six points from meetings with Fulham, QPR and Norwich, then the subsequent three against Manchester United, Chelsea and the Tyne-Wear derby hardly harbour the same promise of spoils.

Fulham cannot be taken lightly – last season’s Stadium of Light stalemate proved one of the final nails in Steve Bruce’s coffin.

But with just one win on the road since September, the Cottagers are attractive opponents in Sunderland’s quest to end the longest sequence of Premier League defeats in O’Neill’s tenure.

Yes, Martin Jol’s men earned a morale-boosting win over Stoke last weekend, to strengthen their own buffer with the bottom three.

But Dimitar Berbatov’s stunning volley on the stroke of half-time was one of the few moments of quality in a predictably turgid encounter.

Neither Berbatov, or his team-mates are particularly prolific on the road either, with Fulham netting just three times in their last six away games.

For a Sunderland defence that were the architects of their own downfall against Reading and West Brom, that is a welcome statistic.

But Sunderland’s prospects tomorrow revolve around their own offensive threat.

One goal in the previous three games saw O’Neill revert to an orthodox 4-4-2 at the Hawthorns last weekend and it would be stunning for him to do otherwise seven days later.

The interplay between Danny Graham and Steven Fletcher was limited, yet both crucially had chances which they could, and should, have profited from.

Moving wide also appears to have given Sessegnon a lease of life and although it was bold to play the Benin international and Adam Johnson either side of the front two on the road, it will be necessary against Fulham’s well-disciplined back-line.

But should O’Neill stick with the 4-4-2, it is no guarantee there won’t be changes tomorrow.

With Danny Rose and Lee Cattermole again unavailable, O’Neill has a couple of decisions to make. David Vaughan was bright when he came on at the Hawthorns and is putting pressure on Seb Larsson’s spot in central midfield.

And with Titus Bramble producing a hat-trick of clangers in the Black Country, the fit-again Carlos Cuellar or even January arrival Kader Mangane, have to be in contention to partner John O’Shea.

Ex-Sunderland utility man Kieran Richardson is likely to be among the substitutes, at best, for Fulham after shaking off a calf injury. But the Black Cats must ensure there is no happy return for the ex-Manchester United player.

If there is, those lingering, outside fears of relegation will suddenly become very real.

Verdict: Home win