DCSIMG

Sunderland verdict: Chris Young

IT PROVED to be a farewell gesture for Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembele as a Craven Cottage double act when they met Sunderland in May’s dead-rubber.

In Fulham’s final home game of the campaign, Martin Jol’s star pair bagged a goal apiece in their last outing together for the Cottagers.

Ultimately, they have remained as an ensemble at White Hart Lane, but the loss of Dempsey and Dembele could so easily have derailed Jol’s entire project.

Not so.

Buoyed by the pivotal capture of Dimitar Berbatov, Fulham have been a free-scoring force – netting 12 times in their opening five home games.

If last weekend’s trip to Everton was a daunting prospect for Sunderland, then Sunday’s game on the banks of the Thames hardly gives much more cause for encouragement.

Undefeated in five, this is a Fulham side playing with confidence and possessing enough resolve to recover from a two-goal deficit at the Emirates, albeit against the most brittle of Arsenal back-lines.

But if there is hope for Sunderland, it comes in the uncharacteristic troubles of a Fulham defence that has prided itself on cohesion.

The trio of Mark Schwarzer, Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes has proved to be one of the Premier League’s finest, yet Jol’s men have conceded 10 times in their last five games.

For a Sunderland outfit who showed marked signs of improvement at Goodison Park, they must continue that attacking progress on Sunday.

The loss of injury doubt Steven Fletcher would prove a significant blow to Sunderland’s prospects – even though the striker has gone six games without a goal – but the Scotland international should recover from John Heitinga’s careless blow to his calf.

It is the two absentees from Merseyside that Martin O’Neill will be more anxiously sweating over.

Although midfielder Lee Cattermole’s knee injury is not as serious as first feared, the skipper still faces a battle to be fit for Sunday – one that O’Neill will be eager for him to conquer.

The hamstring strain of Phil Bardsley (pictured, left) is of even greater concern, with Sunderland facing a right-back crisis if the former Manchester United defender is ruled out.

With Craig Gardner serving his one-match ban, O’Neill will have to turn to Seb Larsson or disrupt his central defensive partnership of John O’Shea and Carlos Cuellar and introduce Titus Bramble to the back four, if he remains without Bardsley’s services.

Fulham will be without Kieran Richardson, with the ex-Sunderland man pulling up lame with a hamstring strain at Arsenal.

Alex Kacaniklic, who scored at the Emirates after replacing Richardson, is the most likely contender to take the former Manchester United man’s spot in midfield.

But again, the focus will fall on Sunderland’s attacking endeavours – can Adam Johnson and Stephane Sessegnon continue the promise they showed at Goodison?

O’Neill is in desperate need for them to do so.

Sunderland have taken just two points from their last five league games and another blank on Sunday, would pile the pressure onto back-to-back home games against an in-form West Brom and struggling QPR.

Craven Cottage has not been a happy hunting ground though.

The Black Cats have only emerged victorious on one occasion during the Premier League era – the 3-1 victory at the tail end of the 2007-08 campaign.

That win, a third top-flight success in a row for Roy Keane, virtually assured Sunderland of Premier League survival.

While the stakes aren’t quite as high this weekend, the need for a victory is not much less pressing.

Fulham have drawn four of their last five games though and with Sunderland the top flight’s masters at finishing on level terms, it may prove to be another small, rather than giant step, towards an upturn in fortunes.

Verdict: Draw

 

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