DESPITE an energy-sapping run of fixtures over the Christmas period, Titus Bramble and David Vaughan enjoyed minimal involvement in Sunderland’s festive programme, writes Chris Young.
It wasn’t until the FA Cup third round rolled around last weekend – when Martin O’Neill had little option than to rest jaded legs – that the duo were handed a place in the starting XI.
They enjoyed mixed fortunes at the Reebok Stadium.
While Vaughan was one of Sunderland’s more impressive performers against the Championship outfit, Bramble displayed all the fragility of a player desperately short on match fitness.
But the pair both played an integral role in a comprehensive victory for Martin O’Neill’s men yesterday, which undoubtedly matched the emphatic scoreline.
At the back, Bramble ensured the Hammers didn’t have a sniff.
It was arguably an ideal game for Bramble to be pitched onto, given the former Ipswich man relishes the prospect of a physical tussle.
But Bramble headed everything cleanly, dominated a one-sided battle with Carlton Cole and was also suitably aware of Kevin Nolan’s fondness for late bursts into the danger zone.
Given Sunderland’s injury problems at centre-half, it was a much-welcome performance for O’Neill alongside the sooner-than-expected return of John O’Shea.
Vaughan was even more influential as he ran the midfield, never wasting a pass or getting caught in possession.
Time and again, Vaughan shielded the ball, turned away from danger and got Sunderland moving up the pitch despite the attentions of West Ham’s midfield behemoths breathing down his neck.
He was at the heart of a slick attacking performance from the Black Cats, where they made the visitors look like the newly-promoted outfit they are, rather than the top 10 side they aspire to be.
But there wasn’t a weak link in Sunderland’s ranks.
It was arguably the most rounded display of Sunderland’s season, as they controlled the game from first whistle to last, with the Hammers only seriously engaging Simon Mignolet in the final 10 minutes.
Sunderland never got sucked into mimicking West Ham’s style of going long – a ploy which Sam Allardyce’s men showcased within the opening five seconds.
The Black Cats stuck to their principals, kept the ball on the deck and played off Steven Fletcher, who held it up as well as he has done all season.
West Ham’s big men were simply made to look like lumbering ones, particularly James Collins who was skinned conclusively by Stephane Sessegnon twice within the opening half-hour before a hamstring injury forced him off.
It was a display which bore the hallmarks of a side showing vastly improved confidence and fluency.
To their credit, Sunderland have not let back-to-back defeats against Spurs and Liverpool de-rail them.
Yesterday they rediscovered the confidence gleaned from the wins against Southampton and Manchester City to further increase the margin from the bottom three.
O’Neill’s side are now closer to the top half than the relegation zone and that is testament to the strides Sunderland have made over just three weeks.
The outside fears of the drop will linger just a little longer, but the pressure is beginning to ebb away and after Tuesday’s FA Cup replay at home to Bolton, they can head to fourth bottom Wigan next weekend, bursting with belief that they can maintain their progress.
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