THE Battle of the Belgians provided this game’s intriguing sub-plot – Romelu “The Powerhouse” Lukaku v Golden Gloves contender and North East Football Writers’ Player of the Year, Simon Mignolet.
Thwarted by a series of saves, the on-loan Chelsea striker eventually came out on top but only with the benefit of a shot from the penalty spot and the flukiest of charge-downs – a points decision in boxing terms.
The bigger picture, though, was the two clubs’ battle to reach Premier League safety, in which no points are given for how well a team plays or how unlucky they might be.
In that contest, results are ALL that counts.
And, for the third time in a row, Sunderland were the losers in a game which could have gone either way.
Victory saw Albion reach 40 points, the accepted Premier League finishing line in terms of staying in the division. “Always a relief to get there,” conceded Baggies boss Steve Clarke.
Sunderland, meanwhile, remain becalmed and unable to crack the psychologically important 30-mark.
“I don’t know how we haven’t got something out of these three games,” manager Martin O’Neill frowned as he reflected on another pointless day at the office.
Both managers had gone into this match appreciating the importance of this fixture.
Albion had ended a six-game winless streak with a fine victory over Liverpool at Anfield and needed to build on that by taking advantage of a home game.
Sunderland had grasped the urgency of getting over the finishing line in winnable games and recognised the Albion match as one they had to do well in if they were to maintain hopes of a top-half finish.
That saw both managers putting out commendably attack-minded teams.
Lukaku and Shane Long were paired up front for Albion, with shamed striker Peter Odemwingie granted a place on the bench. Sunderland new signing Danny Graham was handed his first start alongside Steven Fletcher, with Stephane Sessegnon given a right-wing role.
Sessegnon looked lively from the start as Sunderland set about their task with a real sense of purpose.
After a week in Dubai, the Black Cats’ players had really been put through their paces in an extended warm-up immediately before the game, and it was as if the coaching staff were ensuring they would not be caught dozing at the start, as they had been in this fixture last season.
If that was the plan, then it worked and the Wearsiders were unlucky not to go ahead from a fifth-minute corner, John O’Shea glancing Adam Johnson’s cross goalwards at the near post.
Albion keeper Ben Foster fumbled the ball before throwing it out – O’Shea claiming a goal – but replays showed the ball had only three-quarters crossed the line.
Sunderland continued to play the better football and went just as close to scoring in the 23rd minute when we saw the first positive signs of a Fletcher-Graham partnership – Graham’s short-pass along the 18-yard box teed up his team-mate and the Scot’s low shot beat Foster, only to bounce out off the keeper’s right-hand post.
Johnson blocked the loose ball into the path of Graham, whose close-range shot was blocked by Foster and then Fletcher clipped the rebound over the bar.
That let-off stung Albion into life and, after exerting concerted pressure, they had a
great chance to score five minutes later when Liam Ridgewell crossed from the left and Youssouf Mulumbu headed wide from six yards, in the centre of goal, when it looked easier to score.
Albion kept the pressure up and referee Roger East had already rejected one appeal for a penalty for a Craig Gardner shove on Mulumbu before awarding one a couple of minutes later when Gardner was unable to get his arm out of the way of another Ridgewell cross.
Showing a composure beyond his years, 19-year-old Lukaku took responsibility and slotted a low shot a yard to Mignolet’s right as the keeper went left.
Albion had chances to extend their lead before the break – Long twice heading wide when well-positioned, while Lukaku continued to cause havoc.
But the big talking point was another handball appeal – Johnson’s shot from the left undoubtedly being handled by Gareth McAuley – but the defender’s arm was closer to his body than Gardner’s and the referee did not have a great view.
The decision to wave play on denied Gardner a chance to atone from the penalty spot for his earlier error, as well as Sunderland the opportunity to go into the break on level terms.
It didn’t demoralise the Black Cats though and they started the second half brightly.
Sessegnon went close to a 50th-minute equaliser, when a corner from the left reached him at the far post, but he couldn’t connect cleanly and Mulumbu cleared his shot off the line.
Then Graham stretched to a fine Alfred N’Diaye centre from the left in the 55th minute which was just beyond his reach at the far post.
Albion were still very much in it – Mignolet producing two fine saves to deny Lukaku, while Bramble made a brilliant block on James Morrison.
Then, just as Sunderland were threatening to get a head of steam up, the visitors were rocked back by the most unfortunate of goals.
Lukaku skipped past O’Shea down Albion’s right wing, pushing the ball up the flank, but when Bramble reached it first that looked like the end of the move, only for the defender to attempt a back-pass rather than put the ball into touch.
Though the effort was under-hit, Mignolet still got there fractionally before his countryman, only for his attempted clearance from 18 yards to strike Lukaku and flash spectacularly back across him and into the goal for 2-0.
Sunderland didn’t lose their nerve and might have pulled one back instantly when Sessegnon weaved through three challenges on the right and struck a low shot through a sea of legs which Foster did brilliantly to palm away on his goal-line.
Sessegnon was in irrepressible mood and got on the scoresheet in the 79th minute when substitute James McClean’s cross was blocked out to him 15 yards out, slightly to the left of goal, and he showed incredible coolness to pass the ball into the opposite top corner, with the aid of a very slight deflection.
The game hung in the balance in the last 10 minutes as Sunderland laid siege to the home goal and West Bromwich played on the counter-attack.
Chris Brunt brought a spectacular one-handed save out of Mignolet in the 84th minute; substitute Odemwingie – booed on to the pitch by many of those who used to idolise him – dragged a good chance just wide a couple of minutes later.
But Sunderland went close in the 89th minute when another substitute, David Vaughan, saw his shot blocked on the line.
An unmarked McClean really should have equalised in time added on when the ball dropped to him seven yards out, but he skied his shot when all he needed to do was keep it down.
Sunderland can rightly feel hard done by in terms of the result – they played the better football overall, carved out good chances and didn’t get the rub of the green.
But, by the same token, they gifted Albion the first goal and didn’t help themselves with the second; nor did they take enough of the decent chances they created.
There’s no doubt that the Black Cats are going through a sequence where good fortune just isn’t going their way.
But in this weekend’s game at home to Fulham, they are going to have to up their standards and make their own luck.
Sunderland’s poor results, coupled with Newcastle’s upturn in form saw them drop below their North East rivals yesterday.
The Black Cats should still have enough to get the two or three wins they’ll need for survival, but one point from their last 12 is a depressing statistic.
We’re still a long way out from the end of the season – just gone mid-February – but unless there’s a rapid improvement in results, Sunderland’s season is in danger or dying a slow, lingering death from a long way out.