IF THE Premier League was a meritocracy, Sunderland would have come away with at least a point from the opening day against Fulham.
Likewise, there could have been few grumbles about Southampton earning a point after a second-half onslaught at St Mary’s yesterday.
But it’s not.
And that’s what made Southampton’s late leveller such a sickener.
Would Sunderland have taken a point before kick-off? Yes.
Does a draw on the south coast have to be classed as a good result? Yes.
Southampton will do well this season – they have the energy, movement, ideas and now quality of recruits to genuinely threaten for a spot in the top half.
Yet there was still a sense of dejection at Sunderland going so close to what would have been a genuinely morale-boosting result for the Paolo Di Canio “revolution”.
Given new Southampton signing Dani Osvaldo should have received a second yellow card minutes before winning the free-kick for the equaliser too, a sense of injustice tainted the disappointment too.
But, in fairness, a point was the least Southampton deserved after piling on the pressure.
For all Sunderland defended resolutely with a combination of last-gasp blocks, Keiren Westwood saves or simply poor finishing, the leveller had been coming.
Di Canio could not have wished for a better opening than when the 5ft 6in Emanuele Giaccherini headed home unmarked from seven yards out.
But that advantage always looked precarious, given Southampton’s domination over possession.
Sunderland had a handful of opportunities on the counter-attack in the 43 minutes that followed and Southampton’s central defenders looked worried by the power and pace of Jozy Altidore.
Yet Di Canio’s men struggled to keep possession.
That was not such a worry in the first half when Craig Gardner and Seb Larsson – a surprise combination in the middle of the park, given Cabral’s impressive debut – worked tirelessly to deny Southampton’s midfielders space.
The game-plan was working and despite the marginal decision to rule out Jay Rodriguez’s shot, Sunderland looked solid, if unspectacular.
But as the game wore on – and after Gardner was shifted to right-back – Giaccherini was the only member of Sunderland’s midfield quartet showing a modicum of composure.
The central midfield playmaker, capable of putting his foot on the ball to address that problem, remains Sunderland’s crucial piece of transfer business over the next eight days.
Still, the back-line doggedly went about their business.
Debutant Modibo Diakite had looked short on match fitness during the first half and enjoyed a couple of narrow escapes.
As the game wore on though, he showed more authority both in the air and on the deck.
Despite being shifted from right-back to left-back too, Ondrej Celustka continued the promising start to his Sunderland career.
Both physically and with his deceptive turn of pace, Celustka got sufficiently tight enough to Adam Lallana and Rodriguez.
But Sunderland also rode their luck and just as it looked as if the gates would hold, Southampton finally found their breakthrough.
At least Sunderland are off their mark, both in terms of goals and points.
But this could have been all three. If Sunderland can get the right midfield linchpin, this is the type of game that could be.
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