Stoke 3 Sunderland 2: Chris Young’s verdict

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STEVE Bruce’s allegiances to Old Trafford will never make him a favourite on Merseyside.

But Kenny Dalglish’s second coming at Liverpool has evidently sparked a flash of inspiration for the Sunderland boss.

Bruce isn’t going to be caught singing You’ll Never Walk Alone on the karaoke in his local, but he clearly liked what he saw with the system Dalglish successfully used to vanquish Stoke last midweek.

The popularity of deploying three centre-halves has plummeted since the new millennium, yet Sunderland showed at the Britannia on Saturday that there is still a place for it – providing the three defenders don’t tread on each other’s toes.

Stoke’s methods hold no surprises and using an extra centre-half provides an insurance policy to mop up the inevitable knock-downs that get won by the towering strike force of John Carew and a barracked Kenwyne Jones.

Sunderland’s trio held their shape well and generally made Stoke look pretty average despite the best efforts of the on-loan Carew, who was a genuinely awkward customer on his home debut.

The problem was, that summary only related to Sunderland’s defending from open play.

Here, there will be inevitable criticism of referee Lee Probert and quite rightly.

Probert was horribly inconsistent with his decision-making throughout and seemed intent on proving that he wasn’t being overly protective of goalkeepers.

As tempers frayed at the Wiltshire official’s display in the second half, he swiftly lost control and his officiating became even more erratic – handing Stoke a raft of baffling free-kicks to punish Sunderland’s carelessness.

The mistakes of Probert and his officials for Stoke’s first two goals were well publicised by the television cameras.

But Tony Pulis was correct in pointing out that Sunderland were fortunate in November’s reverse fixture when Lee Cattermole’s handball on the line wasn’t spotted – a let-off which was crucial in providing post-derby redemption.

Sunderland were rightly irate at Probert at the final whistle, but they still had only themselves to blame for surrendering a potential away win in a manner strikingly similar to their 3-2 loss at Wolves in November.

The defending from Rory Delap’s long throws and the wicked, inswinging free-kicks and corners of Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington was slapdash.

Sunderland didn’t defend their near post properly and even when they did, custodian Craig Gordon was caught flapping.

It was telling that Gordon’s launched into a tirade at Probert as he walked off the pitch after justifiably arguing that he hadn’t received any protection from the referee.

His composure was clearly shot and so was his confidence after it gradually dissolved following Carew’s first-half equaliser and culminated in being in no-man’s land for Robert Huth’s late winner.

The manner of the goals shouldn’t mean the formation is scrapped though because, in general play, Sunderland were by far the better team.

Sulley Muntari excelled on his debut and did little to alter the belief that Bruce has signed a class act.

The on-loan Ghanaian doesn’t surrender possession lightly and regularly sparked Sunderland into life by having the vision to pick the right pass – the weight on the ball forward for Asamoah Gyan’s goal being the perfect example.

Muntari also added the aggression and bite to the Sunderland midfield that has been missing since David Meyler was stretchered from the pitch in tears at Aston Villa early last month.

He provided the licence for those in front of him and they did it well.

Stephane Sessegnon and Kieran Richardson were excellent in supporting Gyan, finding space and picking holes down the flanks to exploit the lack of pace in the four centre-halves draped across Stoke’s back line.

Gyan did likewise, making Huth’s life uncomfortable by dragging the former Middlesbrough defender out of position and bettering him with his quick feet.

The system worked and it would have looked a masterstroke if Sunderland had done the simple thing from set-pieces.

They couldn’t though and paid the price yesterday when Liverpool leapfrogged the Black Cats into the top six.

Maybe Dalglish isn’t such a positive figure for Sunderland after all.