GRAEME ANDERSON: Is Sunderland’s luck evening itself out?

Adam Johnson.
Adam Johnson.
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MAYBE luck WILL even itself out over the season for Sunderland.

After the first half of a campaign in which little has been given, or gone their way, Sunderland enjoyed a handsome slice of good fortune on Saturday against a Saints side choosing this game to remind everyone why they were originally being tipped as the surprise package of the Premier League this season.

For the opening half-hour, Gus Poyet’s men simply couldn’t live with a team which bristled with purpose and poise, players at home in their positions and passing the ball well – long and short – and who created a host of openings from which they might have scored.

It was as one-sided a 30 minutes as Sunderland fans have witnessed all season and the only thing they could be grateful for at its conclusion was that the visitors had only taken two of their chances in the face of a ramshackle home display.

It was a lucky escape – as was a moment in the closing stages when two Sunderland players avoided possible sendings off in the same incident.

That came in the 87th minute when substitute Gaston Ramirez, turning towards goal just inside the Sunderland half, was clambered over by the already booked Ki Sung-Yueng.

Had the striker chosen the easy option and gone down, Ki would have struggled to avoid the caution which would have resulted in his sending off.

But Ramirez continued, approaching the edge of the 18-yard box and swerving beyond Wes Brown, who stretched and managed to jab a boot out which made the barest contact with the ball but caught all of his opponent, who went down in agony.

The challenge happened at great speed and referee Chris Foy could easily have dished out what would have been Brown’s second red card in the space of four league games.

Instead, the ball was cleared and both Ki and Brown remained free to take part in this Wednesday’s cup semi-final second leg against Manchester United.

Ramirez was not so lucky, the Spaniard stretchered off with what looked like a broken ankle.

By that stage, Sunderland had managed to cancel out Southampton’s brace thanks to the men who are now the club’s leading goal-scorers – four-goal Fabio Borini and seven-goal man-of-the-moment Adam Johnson.

They even made a push to win it.

But Poyet was more than prepared to take a point from a game which could, and should, have been beyond a side which was as bad as Southampton were good in that opening spell.

The Black Cats’ boss promised afterwards that he would study what went wrong, but he could have been forgiven his surprise at how poorly Sunderland had started the game, given the 4-1 trouncing of Fulham the previous week.

He made two changes to that victorious team – Jozy Altidore and Seb Larsson coming in for Steven Fletcher and Jack Colback – but the pair had games to forget.

And it was no surprise when the men they replaced came on for them before the game’s end and vastly improved the team in the process.

Southampton looked lively from the start and took the lead just four minutes into the game when in-form front-man Jay Rodriguez replicated the fine half-volleyed finishing he had been practicing in the warm-up.

So much was the space and time he was given to bring the ball down and and take a touch, six yards outside of the 18-yard box and directly in front of goal, that it really did feel a little like a training ground exercise as he languidly lashed the ball into the bottom right-hand corner of Vito Mannone’s goal.

Sunderland had paid the price for being clumsy in possession and for not closing down quickly enough in the build-up to the goal.

And the same failings continued unabated as Sunderland struggled to land a glove on a darting, moving, passing Southampton side.

Even when the ball was nabbed, it was given away just as quickly and, with even the normally bullet-proof Wes Brown making mistakes, Sunderland looked vulnerable.

A Rodriguez shot was blocked by Phil Bardsley, Luke Shaw’s centre from the left was almost deflected in at Mannone’s near post, Rickie Lambert drove a shot across goal from right to left when he should have scored and, when Lambert teed up Rodriguez just before the half-hour, it took a fine stop from Mannone to deny the England man in a one-on-one.

The second goal was coming though and it duly arrived just after the half-hour when John O’Shea conceded a needless corner – Steven Davis putting the ball in from the right and Dejan Lovren outwitting fellow centre-half Brown to drive an angled right-foot shot across Mannone and into the far corner.

At the other end of the pitch, Saints keeper Artur Boruc was as much a spectator to the action as Sunderland fans – though he would not have shared their growing frustration or anger.

The mood of both, though, changed dramatically when Sunderland hit back less than 90 seconds after falling two behind.

Johnson (who else these days?) was the driving force behind the goal, taking possession on the right wing and curling in a left-footed inswinging centre.

But it still required quick thinking and agility from Fabio Borini to chest the ball forward before swivelling and pulling a shot back across Boruc from 10 yards.

The Pole dived full-stretch to his right but could not stop the ball, which had bounced into the turf, from eluding him – Boruc had had literally nothing to do but pick the ball out of the back of his net!

In the aftermath of the unexpected, Southampton’s dominance was turned off as if it were a tap and Sunderland briefly threatened to level – Larsson seeing a shot blocked out for a corner minutes later.

Southampton went on to finish the half the better side though, pushing for a third goal which they might have got with the last shot before the break, had the alert Mannone not flung himself to his left to punch away Lambert’s 30-yard free-kick.

Poyet would have been delighted to have got his men in at half-time trailing by only the one goal and, after an effective team talk, his players emerged to produce a much more evenly-balanced second half.

Sunderland enjoyed the better of possession before the hour, but they created little and had to be wary of Southampton’s counter-attacking capability – youthful full-backs Shaw and Calum Chambers both sprinting upfield and having shots on goals within minutes of each other.

Once again Mannone kept his side in it as Southampton swept forward with some delightful passing before the keeper blocked a Rodriguez effort and then dived on the loose ball as the striker followed up.

The heroics continued – a goal-line stop from a Jose Fonte header, a Shaw shot finger-tipped around the post before Lambert hit the outside netting after a fine run.

Sunderland were dogged but labouring and it took a double substitution just after the hour to turn the game their way – Craig Gardner on for the frustrated Cattermole; Colback replacing the struggling Larsson.

Both the substitutes added extra urgency and effectiveness to Sunderland’s play and, with a new-found resolution about them, the Wearsiders levelled in the 71st minute, just a couple of minutes after Borini had seen a goal disallowed for offside.

Full-back Marcos Alonso started the move with a prodded pass to Ki Sung-Yueng, but it was the South Korean’s sprint up the left-hand channel which opened the Saints up.

His squared ball, just outside the Southampton area, was left by Colback and intercepted by Gardner, who swept it out to Johnson on the right.

The winger stepped inside, dribbled his way forward, found a yard and slashed a rising right-foot shot high into the roof of Boruc’s goal, the Pole beaten at his near post as much by surprise, as the ferocity of the shot.

It was the former Manchester City wideman’s fifth goal in four games and one that even his hero George Best would have been proud of.

Somehow, Sunderland were not only level, but threatening to win.

Boruc, who might have been disappointed with both goals conceded, showed his true form when he parried away a speculative Gardner snapshot which might have sneaked into the bottom corner.

And a few minutes later he denied substitute Steven Fletcher inside the six-yard box when the striker turned on a goal-bound shot.

The game swung one way and then the other in the closing stages, with neither side really threatening a real knock-out blow until Ramirez went close to evading Brown.

In the final minute of seven added on to take account of injuries to Ramirez and team-mate Lovren, sub Fletcher won a corner, Ki had a shot blocked and Alonso went close to a dream finish with a header and follow-up.

But, at the final whistle, this definitely had to be seen as a case of one point gained for Sunderland rather than two dropped.

That point does not significantly improve Sunderland’s position at the bottom of the table – they remain 19th – but it does keep them in contention and extends their record to just one defeat in 10 games.

More than that though, it underlined the fact that Sunderland do not have a relegation look about them.

Relegation-bound sides rarely have the character and the quality to come back from two goals down to salvage a point.

And relegation-bound sides rarely have the good fortune which comes when a determined team going through a sticky patch but digs in and shows real desire and ability.

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