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SUNDERLAND staged a remarkable comeback but were edged out by Fulham ia seven-goal thriller in last night’s Barclays U18 Premier League play-off semi-final.

The Londoners, who have invested heavily in their academy, including a series of overseas signings, showed their class – they won the league’s Elite Group Stage – by storming into a four-goal lead.

But Craig Liddle’s Wearsiders fought back gamely in the closing stages at Fulham’s Motspur Park training ground, and also had a goal disallowed.

Sunderland started slowly and survived three scares before going a goal down after only 10 minutes, failing to deal with a clever ball over the top from Cauley Woodrow found Moussa Dembele – no relation to the Tottenham star of the same name – who went on to score easily.

Sunderland keeper Joel Dixon was kept busy and he made a superb stop in 19 minutes, denying Woodrow after a classy move involving Emerson Hyndman and Patrick Roberts.

But, after 25 minutes, tricky winger Roberts beat two defenders before crossing for home skipper Woodrow, who looped his shot over the stranded goalkeeper for 2-0.

It remained the same scoreline until the break, though dominant Fulham had a Dembele effort disallowed after Stephen Arthurworrey fouled Dixon in the build-up, and Dixon made another stunning save to keep out a vicious Roberts strike.

Liddle brought on Victor Zapata-Caicedo, a trialist from Tottenham, and Carl Lawson for the second period, but Sunderland’s plight deteriorated when they went further behind four minutes after the restart.

The goal was scored by Roberts, who lifted the ball over Dixon after latching on to Hyndman’s perfectly weighted pass to complete an excellent move.

Dembele had another strike disallowed, after being caught offside as he got on the end of brilliant work from dangerman Roberts.

In the 67th minute, the Cottagers made it 4-0 with Arthurworrey drilling home a fierce strike from close range, following a corner.

Then came the start of a magnificent comeback, led by George Honeyman’s 25-yarder.

His tremendous 77th-minute goal led the way, when he picked his spot from outside the box and buried a fierce shot, with the outside of his foot, into the top corner.

It appeared to be a mere consolation, especially after an alert Lawson had a chance kept out by keeper Marek Rodak.

However, on 84 minutes, Craig Liddle’s lads pulled a second goal back when lively sub Zapata-Caicedo powered home from close range after Honeyman’s cross was helped on to the back post by striker Martin Smith.

Shortly afterwards Sunderland had a Zapata-Caicedo header, from Honeyman’s fine cross, disallowed, with the linesman flagging for offside.

It was all Sunderland now and, in the 90th minute, they did make it 4-3 when sub Lawson lobbed the keeper with an excellent finish from 20 yards.

Try as they might, the Wearsiders just could not find an equaliser in the final seconds, but had given Steve Wigley’s skilful side a real fright.

Coach Liddle said afterwards: “Unfortunately, we started slowly, but once it got to 4-0 it appeared we had nothing to lose and the lads really cut loose to make a magnificent fightback.”

Fulham will meet Reading, who beat Everton 4-0, in the play-off final.

FULHAM: Rodak, Passley, Richards, Donnelly, Arthurworrey, Sambou, Roberts, Hyndman, Woodrow, Tankovic, Dembele

SUNDERLAND: Dixon, Cartwright, McNamee, Ledger, Sukar (Lawson 45), Honeyman, Agnew, E Robson, T Robson, Smith, Stinson (Zapata-Caicedo 45). Subs not used: Strykjet, McCarthy, Greenwood