WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS 2 SUNDERLAND 1

Nicklas Bendtner (left) and Wolverhampton Wanderers' Jody Craddock.
Nicklas Bendtner (left) and Wolverhampton Wanderers' Jody Craddock.
0
Have your say

MARTIN O’Neill must have realised yesterday as he watched from the stands, the full extent of the job he has taken on at Sunderland.

It is no less than saving the club’s Premier League skin.

Wolverhampton Wanderers' Kevin Doyle (left) and Sunderland's Wes Brown (right) in action.

Wolverhampton Wanderers' Kevin Doyle (left) and Sunderland's Wes Brown (right) in action.

He might harbour other ambitions for the three years he has agreed to stay, but currently he has no more pressing one.

For the second week in a row, the Black Cats contrived to open the scoring yet still lose to one of the very few teams lower in the table than themselves.

And the Northern Irishman must hope it’s a case of third time lucky this weekend when he will become the latest manager in as many weeks to try for that most elusive of commodities: a Wearside win.

Wolves, like Wigan before them, were game opposition but not much else and Sunderland’s failure to take a point from either of these limited teams – after being put in the driver’s seat both times – sets the alarm bells ringing.

O’Neill face remained inscrutable as his new team imploded spectacularly.

But already the problems will be obvious to him, and he will be aware they are not the sort likely to be solved by a tinker here, or a tweak there.

He will be given all the help Sunderland can provide. He will be allowed to bring in his own backroom staff. But his first advert in the Jobs Vacant column should read: “Wanted: Two quality strikers. Current incumbents need not apply.”

Sunderland’s forwards were hopeless yesterday and arguably the primary reason their side lost the game.

True, the Wearsiders’ defending for both the goals they conceded was nothing to be proud of and they paid the price for the criminal error of switching off collectively in the seconds after Seb Larsson’s second-half penalty was saved.

But Nicklas Bendtner and partner Ji Dong-won’s refusal to play their football anywhere near Wolves’ area was always the underlying weakness of their game, meaning that one piece of good attacking work after another went unrewarded.

When Sunderland were on top and they were most in need of a fox in the box, the duo were invariably out on the wing or making ground to where they should have been in the first place.

Ji was the only change to the team which lost against Wigan to signal the end of Sunderland manager Steve Bruce.

The South Korean earned his first start as a result of the reshuffle caused by injury to Michael Turner which saw Kieran Richardson withdrawn from last week’s attacking role into a back four which partnered ex-Manchester United men John O’Shea and Wes Brown in the centre-half positions for the first time.

Wolves, too, made one change – veteran former Sunderland defender Jody Craddock replacing gaffe-prone centre-half Roger Johnson – with both sides putting the emphasis on defence, even though they both started with two strikers up front.

Understandably, the start was a tentative one, given it had the look of a six-pointer about it, even at this stage of the season.

But Sunderland started the brighter side in the rain which fell throughout and might have taken the lead in the fifth minute when Stephane Sessegnon acrobatically volleyed a half-clearance from Craddock which, unfortunately, was fired straight at keeper Wayne Hennessey.

Wolves responded in the seventh minute, the home fans appealing for a penalty when Lee Cattermole out-muscled Dave Edwards in the area before Steven Fletcher’s header was well saved by Keiren Westwood – the keeper’s body behind the line but gloves just in front.

By the time the quarter-hour arrived though, Sunderland were looking comfortable, with Larsson trying his luck from range before putting in a corner from the right which Brown, at the near post, glanced straight at Hennessey. In the same move, O’Shea was wrestled to the ground by Christophe Berra, who was lucky to avoid giving away a penalty.

The Black Cats were winning the midfield battle, with Cattermole dominating, but were looking toothless in attack. Sessegnon went down far too easily in Wolves’ box in the 27th minute and Sunderland created more pressure on the half-hour, but there was too much “after you Claude” from the visitors, everyone waiting for everyone else to take the shot, and the chance passed.

After an opening 40 minutes dominated by defences, the game suddenly sprang into life when the teams had one outstanding chance each but were thwarted by equally outstanding blocks.

Wolves should have taken the lead when Matt Jarvis’s cross from the right flashed across the six-yard box and Stephen Hunt met it at the far post with a firmly stuck rising shot from five yards out.

It looked a goal all the way but – far from the first time in his fledgling Premier League career – Westwood produced a stunning reflex save to deny the home team. “I wouldn’t mind seeing that again,” mused Mick McCarthy. “I still can’t believe it stayed out.

Cattermole was booked for bringing down Kevin Doyle on the breakaway – the skipper’s fifth yellow of the season which earns him a one-match suspension, ruling him out of O’Neill’s first game in charge, against Blackburn on Sunday.

But that was almost forgotten as Sunderland went close to taking a 42nd-minute lead when Sessegnon sliced through the home defence and sidefooted a shot goalwards from five yards, only to see a despairing Stephen Ward slide in the rain-drenched conditions to block on the line, with the ball rolling to his keeper.

After the break, Bendtner had a great 48th-minute chance after good team build-up, but he flicked his shot wide and, at that point, you were beginning to wonder whether Sunderland would ever make the most of a decent opening.

The answer came four minutes later when the visitors scored a goal of stunning quality.

Counter-attacking from a Wolves corner, Cattermole drove the ball to halfway where Nicklas Bendtner audaciously backheeled the ball to the left flank and the feet of Sessegnon, who sprinted goalwards.

Running faster, though, was Richardson on the overlap and the African had the vision to spot the run and play the ball out for the left-back to run on to and smash a swerving, rising shot which curled just inside Hennessey’s near post.

Running towards Sunderland’s fans, the goalscorer earned himself an immediate booking when he removed his shirt, keen to show the message “I belong to Jesus”.

It did, admittedly, feel like a miracle that the Wearsiders had finally found a cutting edge in attack.

And so, perhaps for that reason, the Almighty might have forgiven his young disciple for working on a Sunday.

The game opened up after a lead was taken, but, crucially for Wolves, their fans stayed behind them and that helped them to hold their nerve.

Sunderland had a great chance to double their lead just before the hour when Cattermole hit a wonderful ball up the left, but Bendtner raced down the wing rather than cutting in and when he passed to Ji, the shot-shy Korean produced the misplaced pass of the season and Wolves breathed again.

With the rain coming down even harder now, Sunderland would have settled for the game ending as a damp squib, particularly with both Bendtner and Ji fluffing their lines when it came to more goalscoring chances.

And then, in the 71st minute, a God-send – if you believe God helps those who help themselves – Seb Larsson swallow-diving after making contact with Craddock’s outstretched boot on the edge of the Wolves area; the Sunderland man not only winning the decision but also an unlikely penalty too.

With no rush from the strikers to seize the ball, Larsson opted to take it himself.

Had the shot gone in, it would have been game over.

Instead, his low shot to Hennessey’s left was saved by the keeper and the resulting counter-attack brought a Wolves equaliser, incredibly just 25 seconds later.

Wolves had identified Sunderland’s slowness off the mark as a potential weakness and looked to take quick free-kicks and throw-ins throughout. This time, they sought to catch the Black Cats on the hop from their own penalty and succeeded.

A sweeping move saw the ball reach Jarvis on the left and his immediate cross was nodded home eight yards out by striker Fletcher who had managed to steal a couple of yards space on Brown.

The defender sank to his knees and fell on his back – just as he had done in the last minute against Wigan last week – after watching the ball sail over his head to the unmarked Wolves man, who had the simplest of finishes against the exposed Westwood.

Suddenly it was a different game with the momentum on Wolves’ side.

Sunderland managed to get some traction and Bendtner thumped a shot straight at Hennessey in the 80th minute.

But Fletcher grabbed his second a minute later when a Wolves cross from the right was handled by midfielder Jamie O’Hara in the Sunderland area – the ball striking the shoulder of the Wolves man and rolling down his arm before sitting up for Fletcher to crack the loose ball home left-footed.

Sunderland sagged visibly and looked as if they were running through treacle for the remainder of the game, finishing a well-beaten side by the final whistle, their energy levels seemingly running on empty.

For the second campaign in a row, Sunderland had thrown away a game in the dying minutes at Molineux, having led until the final stages.

Last season, such brittleness cost them any hope of qualifying for Europe. This season, it threatens to cost them a whole lot more.

Sunderland are finding new ways to fail at the moment – making bad teams look good in the process – and that is always the hallmark of a side vulnerable to relegation.

Either way, it all adds up to a world of trouble for the Black Cats and for Martin O’Neill.

The new Sunderland manager is known to relish a challenge.

And by God he’s got one here.