SUNDERLAND suffered a third successive Stadium of Light defeat after they were unable to complete a second-half fightback against high-flying West Brom, writes Chris Young.
The Black Cats arguably produced their best football of the season in the opening 30 minutes, yet found themselves 2-0 down at the interval.
Zoltan Gera produced a stunning strike for the opener before Shane Long pounced on a catastrophic error from Simon Mignolet to double the advantage.
Without the injured Lee Cattermole, Sunderland struggled to offer the same attacking thrust in the second half but reduced the arrears with 17 minutes to go when Craig Gardner’s deflected free-kick found the net.
Sunderland’s hopes of a comeback looked over when Adam Johnson was adjudged to have fouled Liam Ridgewell in the area with a needless lunge, although replays showed there was minimal contact. Romelu Lukaku netted the resulting spot-kick.
But they restored some hope with four minutes to go when Stephane Sessegnon tucked home the rebound from a corner after Steven Fletcher’s header was kept out.
Sunderland pushed hard for a dramatic late leveller, but the Baggies added a fourth in the fifth minute of stoppage time when Marc-Antoine Fortune netted on the counter-attack.
Martin O’Neill named an unchanged side as he resisted the temptation to recall Craig Gardner after the midfielder’s one-match ban, with the former Birmingham City man only included on the bench.
Former Middlesbrough trainee Chris Brunt replaced hamstring victim Youssouf Mulumbu in West Brom’s midfield, while centre-half Gareth McAuley also returned in place of Gabriel Tamas.
Adam Johnson tested the hands of Boaz Myhill in the first five minutes after Sunderland broke swiftly through Steven Fletcher and Stephane Sessegnon.
The ball came out to Johnson on the left and the winger cut inside Billy Jones before scuffing a right-foot shot that Myhill gathered comfortably low at his near post.
Claudio Yacob had a golden opportunity to hand the Baggies the lead in the 16th minute when Brunt’s corner from the right made its way through a packed area to the Argentine at the far post.
Yacob was only a couple of yards out, but couldn’t get his head over the ball and looped an effort wide.
Moments later, Sessegnon went close to netting a stunner for the second time in as many weeks.
Johnson back-heeled the ball into the path of Sessegnon on the edge of the area and the Benin international flicked it up before hitting a dipping volley which Myhill just managed to push around the post.
John O’Shea, who had earlier been booked, had a narrow escape in the 20th minute when he looked to have earned a second yellow card for a foul on Shane Long.
But referee Mike Dean handed the card instead to Long after adjudging the Ireland striker had dived over O’Shea’s outstretched leg, although replays showed there was contact between the pair.
Sessegnon went close again in the 25th minute when he met Seb Larsson’s free-kick from the right with a glancing header.
Myhill managed to keep out the header and with no Sunderland player able to pounce on the loose ball, the Baggies cleared behind.
But it was the visitors who broke the deadlock on the half-hour mark after a stunning strike from Gera.
A loose touch from Johnson fell to Peter Odemwingie, who fed Gera and the Hungarian unleashed a curling shot into the top corner from 20 yards, which left Simon Mignolet with no chance.
Sunderland almost mustered an instant equaliser when O’Shea curled a shot just beyond the far top corner from Cattermole’s cross.
But the Sunderland skipper pulled a muscle as he delivered the ball into the area and after treatment, was replaced by Gardner.
A minute before half-time, West Brom doubled the lead after an uncharacteristic howler from Mignolet.
Brunt chipped a harmless ball in behind the Sunderland back-line which was well out of the reach of Long.
But Mignolet couldn’t gather cleanly and spilled the ball under pressure from Long, who was left to tap into an empty net.
Sunderland almost immediately halved the deficit when Gardner unleashed a free-kick from 25 yards which swerved in the air, only for Myhill to hastily re-adjust and push it away.
HALF-TIME Sunderland 0 West Brom 2
O’Neill made an adventurous change at the interval, with James McClean replacing O’Shea – a switch that saw Phil Bardsley move to centre-half and Larsson go to right-back.
But it was the Baggies who went closest first, only for Mignolet to earn some redemption.
Gardner lost the ball inside his own half and Morrison threaded a perfectly-weighted ball in behind the Sunderland defence for Long to race onto.
But Mignolet was immediately off his line and blocked superbly to deny Long a second.
Myhill continued to live a charmed existence in the 53rd minute when Johnson cut inside and unleashed a dipping shot from 25 yards, which the Baggies stopper managed to block unorthodoxly.
Moments later, Fletcher headed a foot over the top from Larsson’s cross from the right.
West Brom continued to threaten though, Brunt driving a cross-cum-shot just out of the reach of Long and beyond the far post in the 61st minute.
Odemwingie, with his last contribution before being replaced, produced a decent effort in the 69th minute when he surged inside from the right and unleashed a shot which just drifted beyond the far post.
But Sunderland were handed a lifeline in the 73rd minute when Gardner’s free-kick from 25 yards out, to the left of goal, took a hefty deflection off substitute Marc-Antoine Fortune and nestled in the far corner.
Moments later, Sessegnon went close with a drive from 25 yards that was deflected just wide off Billy Jones.
But Sunderland’s hopes of a comeback were scuppered with 10 minutes to go when Johnson needlessly lunged into Liam Ridgewell on the left-hand by-line, although there looked to be little contact between the duo.
Substitute Romelu Lukaku stepped up and calmly placed it into Mignolet’s bottom right-hand corner.
The Baggies almost added a fourth in the 86th minute when Lukaku rounded Mignolet, but couldn’t squeeze it in from an impossibly acute angle.
Just as Sunderland’s hopes of a point looked over, they again forced their way back into the game with four minutes to go when Sessegnon grabbed his second in as many games.
Johnson’s corner from the left found the head of Fletcher, whose effort was magnificently blocked by Myhill.
But Sessegnon pounced on the rebound to smash into the net from a couple of yards out.
Sunderland went close to a leveller in the second minute of stoppage time when Cuellar’s header from Sessegnon’s cross was plucked out of the air by Myhill.
Lukaku then struck the near post on the counter-attack moments later after darting inside from the left.
The Baggies did manage a fourth on the break in the fifth minute of stoppage time when Fortune checked inside the challenge of Larsson and curled a shot into the far corner.
FULL-TIME Sunderland 2 West Brom 4
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet, Bardsley, Cuellar, O’Shea (McClean 46), Rose, Larsson, Cattermole (Gardner 35), Colback (Saha 73), Johnson, Sessegnon, Fletcher. Subs not used: Campbell, Kilgallon, Vaughan, Westwood. Booked: O’Shea (9), Gardner (53)
WEST BROM: Myhill, Jones, Olsson, McAuley, Ridgewell, Yacob, Gera, Morrison (Tamas 90), Brunt, Odemwingie (Fortune 70), Long (Lukaku 70). Subs not used: Popov, Rosenberg, Dorrans, Daniels. Booked: Long (20), Morrison (39), Ridgewell (90)
Referee: Mike Dean (Merseyside)
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