Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Sessegnon feasts after famine

Sunderland's Stephane Sessegnon.
Sunderland's Stephane Sessegnon.
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THE GOAL drought is over.

No, not Steven Fletcher’s lean patch.

Even by his high standards, five games without a goal was no real cause for concern, particularly when there have hardly been a conveyor belt of opportunities for the Scotland striker.

The big dry spell in Sunderland’s ranks was the one that has gone under the radar, the eight-month barren stretch for Fletcher’s strike partner.

Stephane Sessegnon will never be a regular scorer. But a goalless run which stretched back to March’s victory over QPR has been a criminally lean spell for such a gifted forward who has only missed three Premier League games during that time.

The confidence in front of goal has ebbed away and the questions were just beginning to emerge over whether Sessegnon was simply a luxury on the eyes.

But then the mantra about class and form rang true in West London yesterday with a goal of such salivating quality, that it almost made the eight-month wait worthwhile.

Finding the net has worked wonders for Adam Johnson, with the England international a shining light in the second half at Craven Cottage after opening his Sunderland account at Everton eight days earlier.

The ball through to Fletcher for the opener was a genuine £10million pass.

Now Martin O’Neill will hope Sessegnon experiences a similar pick-me-up.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Sunderland’s Player of the Year only truly came to the fore last season after sweeping home his first of the campaign in a 2-0 October victory at Bolton.

But Sessegnon badly needed the adrenaline rush of sprinting to the delirious Sunderland supporters in unbridled joy after a testing opening three months of the season.

O’Neill again expressed his theory in yesterday’s papers that Sessegnon had been unsettled by his agent’s attempts to tempt Europe’s bright lights during the summer.

While Sunderland never received a formal offer for the Benin international – perhaps unsurprisingly given the discrepancy between his price tag and goal return – the seed of doubt was nevertheless sown over whether he would still be at the Stadium of Light at the start of the season.

But the transfer speculation was not the only factor in Sessegnon’s malaise.

Sessegnon was not in peak physical condition when he reported back for pre-season training and when that was clearly affected his performances in the opening games of the season, his confidence inevitably dipped.

But there have gradually been signs – both in games and particularly on the training ground – that the old spark was beginning to return.

Not that Sessegnon was anywhere near perfect yesterday.

The ideas were there and the willingness, as he drifted wide to find some joy down Fulham’s flanks. But the execution at the pivotal moment was too often poor.

Twice in the first half, Sessegnon infuriated his team-mates by his failure to deliver.

First, he over-hit a reverse pass into the path of Johnson, when he would have been free down the left-hand side of the area, and then fluffed his lines even more spectacularly three minutes before the break.

It was a clever run from Sessegnon to collect Phil Bardsley’s shrewd ball down the right and the way he let the ball run across him, left him with just Mark Schwarzer to beat.

But again that lack of confidence struck and Sessegnon opted to deliver a square-ball, which was the lesser option, and Fulham were able to clear their lines.

It was a similar story at Goodison Park when he put too much on a simple through-ball for Johnson when Sunderland were 1-0 up, that would have sent the winger through on goal.

Like any gifted maverick, he can leave supporters cursing.

But what has seen O’Neill persevere with Sessegnon is that moment of magic which converts him into a match-winner and his goal was truly Harry Potter-esque.

Had Sunderland not managed that crucial third to secure a two-goal cushion, there has to be an element of doubt as to whether the Black Cats would have held out to secure a priceless victory, even with the luxury of an extra man.

The fact Simon Mignolet was called upon to produce two stunning saves in the final 15 minutes, when Sunderland should have been shutting up shop, showed the fragility still in the ranks that stems from a failure to record victories.

The challenge for Sessegnon now is to harness the positivity from his strike and ensure the partnership with Fletcher blossoms into the one which looks so promising on paper.

It’s not just Sessegnon’s responsibility – Johnson, Seb Larsson, James McClean etc all hold the burden of servicing the Scotland striker.

Again Fletcher proved what a clinical finisher he is when presented with a clear sight of goal, rather than being forced to feed on scraps.

Given his run without a goal and the pressure on Sunderland to achieve a victory, particularly when their hopes were vastly improved by Brede Hangeland’s first-half dismissal, Fletcher could easily have folded under the gaze of Schwarzer.

But there was a touch to control and then another of those nonchalant left-footed pokes to send it beyond the keeper and into the far corner.

Fletcher noticeably held the ball up with some astuteness, too, as Sunderland looked to hit the Cottagers on the counter-attack – as they did so devastatingly twice during the second half.

With that physical presence up top and Sessegnon floating around in the hole, it looks a perfectly-matched strike partnership.

But Sessegnon needs an end product to complement the twists and turns.

Yesterday – at potentially the most pivotal moment of Sunderland’s season – he crucially did deliver.