Swansea City 0 Sunderland 0
AND ... breathe ...
It has been a roller coaster start to the season for Sunderland so far, and not in a good way either.
The theatre of an opening day draw at Liverpool gave way to the agony of derby defeat at home to Newcastle – a stigma amplified by the morale-sapping cup exit to Championship newcomers Brighton as supporters seethed and squirmed.
And then there was the Liberty Stadium on Saturday: a game which threatened to define Sunderland’s season, even at this early stage of the campaign.
Had it been won or lost, the roller coaster would have veered violently off in yet another direction, but, almost inevitably, the match fizzled out into a goalless draw, taking some of the white heat of the season’s start with it.
Inevitable, because Swansea had failed to score in either of their previous Premier League games; inevitable because Sunderland’s season so far has been a tale of missed opportunities in front of goal.
And while a view could be taken that the largely uninspiring result leaves Sunderland no further forward, it actually offers some much-needed breathing space for sights to be re-adjusted and perspective regained.
We are, after all, only a fortnight into the season.
Only the most one-eyed of optimists could argue that the glass is half-full on the back of recent results.
But nor is it the end of the world either after a result which gives Sunderland their first clean sheet of the season and consecutive league draws away from home.
Two points from nine and out of one cup already is hardly the start desired or required, but the current international break – Sunderland do not play again until Chelsea’s visit on September 10 – will allow pause for though and room for improvements.
Sunderland’s position would have been considerably better or worse had either side been able to free itself of a failure in front of goal at the Liberty Stadium.
But despite the positive attacking intent from both sides, neither convinced when it came to a clinical edge and the upshot of that is that two dreadful results have been balanced by two effective away displays.
Both sides saw this fixture as eminently winnable, but, on the day, their leading men fluffed their lines.
Most of Swansea’s best chances fell to club record signing Danny Graham, who is in danger of proving this season only that he is too good for the Championship but not quite good enough for the Premier League.
Sunderland’s best openings also fell to their most expensive player, but these are testing days for Asamoah Gyan, whose all-round game has deserted him just as much as his eye for goal.
There was some good news for the 1,500-plus supporters who made the round trip of more than 700 miles when John O’Shea almost marked his injury-delayed debut with a second-minute goal.
The Manchester United defender – up from right-back – got on the end of Seb Larsson’s left-wing corner at the near post, only to head it powerfully onto the crossbar.
But, throughout the game, his presence, along with fellow ex-Red Devil Wes Brown in the heart of defence, provided a soothing effect on the rest of the team. Even though he was far from fully fit, the Irishman was able to canter through a game like this quite comfortably.
He wasn’t the only debutant – boss Steve Bruce hoping to up his side’s goal ratio by giving summer signing Craig Gardner his first start in midfield – Ahmed Elmohamady and Kieran Richardson, from the side which lost to Newcastle, giving way in a reshuffled team.
Swansea were unchanged from the team which had drawn 0-0 with Wigan – manager Brendan Rogers happy with his defensive strength – and it looked as though that solidity would be tested when Gyan drove a first-time shot wide in the eighth minute, with the visitors looking to build on a positive start.
Gyan had a great chance to give Sunderland a 13th-minute lead when Stephane Sessegnon played him in with a delightful defence-splitting ball, on the right of goal, but the striker could not seize on to it swiftly enough.
When he did get there, Swansea’s impressive keeper, Michel Vorm, had narrowed the angles and the shot bounced harmlessly off him. Vorm, though, would have been pleased that the striker decided to lash it rather than lob it.
“Those are the chances you have to take at this level,” sighed Bruce, who witnessed plenty more examples to come.
Gyan was wasteful again in the 20th minute, showing alertness to chase down a poor back pass but allowing himself to be pushed wide by Vorm so that the shot was no longer on.
The Swans have yet to break their duck in the Premier League this season and they played like they never would in the opening stages, but they started to ask questions of the Sunderland defence midway through the half.
Scott Sinclair got the home crowd going in the 23rd minute with a great shot from 25 yards, a shot out of nothing, which smacked against Simon Mignolet’s crossbar and back into play.
Then ex-Watford striker Graham headed wide from a left-wing cross a couple of minutes later as Swansea finally began to show.
Leon Britton produced a lovely through ball to Graham after a jinking run in the 28th minute and Brown had to time his tackle to perfection in his own area to deny the big frontman a shot on goal.
Sunderland worked the ball forward to Gyan in the 35th minute and the Ghanaian got inside the area down the left, but he was unable to work the ball on to his right foot and was closed down.
Swansea should have scored from a corner from the right five minutes before the break – the ball reaching Kemy Agustien at the far post and his chipped cross was headed wide in front of goal by the unmarked Graham, from just eight yards out.
It was the best chance of the opening half and a warning to Sunderland that – just as against Newcastle – they could be the better side overall but still lose the match.
If Sunderland fans were hoping for a game of two halves in terms of their team’s finishing, they were disabused of that notion within a minute of the resumption when Jack Colback won possession and sparked a move which ended with the midfielder teeing up Gyan in the box, only for the striker’s first touch to desert him when well-placed.
Swansea rallied to enjoy a good spell, begun when Nathan Dyer scooped a shot over Mignolet’s bar in the 52nd minute.
Three minutes later, they went desperately close to taking the lead when full-back Neil Taylor crossed deep from the left and Graham rose unmarked at the far post to bullet a header goalwards which Mignolet brilliantly blocked.
Then the keeper needed to be saved after flapping at Sinclair’s cross at his near post a minute later. As the ball dropped, he had reason to be grateful that it fell to Colback, who hacked clear from the edge of his six-yard box.
Sunderland responded in the 58th minute when O’Shea put a booming cross into the Swansea box from the right, but Gardner misdirected a free header at the far post and, with Sunderland struggling for the win they wanted, Bruce made changes 20 minutes from time – Elmohamady and Connor Wickham on, Larsson and skipper Lee Cattermole off.
Wickham had an immediate chance to impress after Sessegnon’s perfectly weighted through ball sent Gyan sprinting down the left, Wickham matching him stride for stride through the centre.
But Gyan went for goal rather than looking to find his unmarked strike partner and Vorm made a fine save, much to the frustration of Bruce on the sidelines.
With 15 minutes remaining, Bruce finally withdrew the ineffectual Gyan, who had to endure mock applause from the away fans, and brought on Richardson on the left wing so that Sessegnon could forage further forward.
The Wearsiders brightened.
From a very poor start, Wickham seems to be improving by the game, but the one shot that fell to him was blocked and the match started as it has finished, with shots being blocked or unable to find the target as the contest petered out.
Swansea played good football and are now 10 home league games unbeaten, but they seem like this year’s Blackpool – brash, entertaining, managed by a good manager but a nearly, not quite, side.
They will surprise teams along the way, but Premier League chairmen everywhere will feel relieved and certain they will fill one of the bottom three spaces at the end of the season.
Because of that, many will feel Sunderland should have done better on Saturday.
In reality though, the likelihood is that they have stopped the rot and Bruce and his players will now have time and space to regroup.
The stats were good, bad and indifferent at the final whistle.
The good? Sunderland had recorded their first clean sheet of the season and their longest unbeaten run away from home in the top flight since 1999 – four.
The indifferent? They still haven’t won at Swansea for nigh on 40 years now.
The bad? Sessegnon and Gyan went into the game as the two Premier League players with most shots off target this season.
It is the last statistic which has focused Bruce’s mind – a statistic worsened by the weekend’s work.
And it is the reason why Sunderland will leave no stone unturned over the next couple of days as they look to pose a real threat in front of goal.
What the Black Cats need the most – and the game against the Swans demonstrated – is a fox in the box.