ANOTHER week, another wasted opportunity and as Sunderland threaten to sink without trace under a tsunami of unwanted statistics – fans peering between their fingers can now see the derby looming up on the horizon.
Joe Kinnear was at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday preparing a report on the Magpies’ next opponents, (so THAT’S what Directors of Football do).
And he would have carried glad tidings back to St James’s Park, where Alan Pardew and his coaching staff harbour an over-powering desire to erase the memory of last season’s crushing derby defeat on Tyneside.
Sunderland are weak mentally, Kinnear would have said – egg-shell fragile if they go behind – they don’t score goals, don’t defend them and are particularly vulnerable from set-pieces – six conceded now in their first eight games.
Never have the Black Cats gone into a derby game on such a bleak run of form.
Yet, on Saturday – as had been the case against other middling teams Fulham, Crystal Palace and West Brom so far – they had the chance to get something out of the game.
Swansea have been extended by their European adventure this season and, without a home win in the league going into the game, started tentatively, showing Sunderland plenty of respect.
There was a sluggishness about the Welshmen in the opening 45 minutes and Sunderland were well-organised and had the better of the game before the break without ever threatening to dominate.
New head coach Gus Poyet had gone for a defensively strong formation – Lee Cattermole patrolling in front of the back four, then a midfield four behind lone striker Steven Fletcher.
But the big talking point was the instant recall of Phil Bardsley, who took Jack Colback’s place at left-back.
Every new man at the helm tends to make an early judgement call – remember the effect of Martin O’Neill involving the untried James McClean in his first Sunderland game in charge?
Poyet’s call was to restore a player who has been Player of the Season twice but who has also become a hate figure to a section of the fans.
By the end of the game, Bardsley had picked up a booking, almost got Valentin Roberge sent off, missed a good goalscoring chance and scored an own goal.
As managerial masterstrokes go, it wasn’t the best.
And yet Sunderland could be happy with their work before the break.
They effectively snuffed out their naturally attack-minded opponents – effectively snuffing out entertainment, too, by the way – but Poyet would not have complained about that with his side looking comfortable.
And the best goalscoring opportunity before the break went his side’s way when a routine practiced on the training ground almost came off from a corner kick.
It came after Seb Larsson had caused consternation for Swansea with a dipping free-kick from the left which Chico Flores put behind.
And then, from the resulting corner from the left, Adam Johnson pulled the back towards the edge of the area and Fletcher lost his marker, raced to the near post, and drove a shot a fraction wide from 15 yards.
Other than that, it was a largely featureless first half, certainly in terms of goalmouth incident.
Early in the game, Bardsley took a booking for a lunge on Nathan Dyer and then short before the break played a poor back pass to Roberge, who was forced to foul Michu and might have been sent off had John O’Shea not got back quickly enough to show the Frenchman was not the last defender.
Swansea’s best chance came midway through the half when Craig Gardner jumped into Wilfried Bony 25 yards out from the Sunderland goal and Jonathan de Guzman whistled his free-kick a yard wide of Westwood’s left-hand post.
Sunderland’s would have been the happier dressing room at the interval, where Poyet asked for more of the same and for his players to use the ball just that little bit better going forward.
Swans’ boss Michael Laudrup observed: “Credit to Sunderland, but we lacked movement and pace in the first half and didn’t play it quickly enough.
“At half-time, we talked about the need to have movement and we got it, which caused Sunderland problems in the second half – it made it much more difficult for them to mark us.”
Laudrup’s message proved to be more effectively absorbed than Poyet’s – on the resumption, Sunderland were wasteful; Swansea purposeful.
The home side upped their workrate and their movement and with Fletcher, Cattermole and Bardsley especially not fully fit, gaps began to appear for the home side to exploit.
Michu fired over after capitalising on a ball over the top in the 52nd minute.
Two minutes later, de Guzman rolled a great ball across the box from the right, only for Bony to fire wide from six yards out.
And when de Guzman tested Westwood from 25 yards in the 55th minute, it felt like a goal was coming.
It duly arrived two minutes later but – oh, how unfortunate for Sunderland and fortuitous for the Swans – de Guzman’s corner from the right glanced across goal at the near post, striking Bardsley and flashing past the stranded Westwood and just inside his left-hand post.
To have worked so hard and conceded so harshly was cruel and Sunderland were still coming to terms with their bad luck when they suddenly found themselves 2-0 down.
Less than 60 seconds after falling behind, they failed to close down a Swansea move around the Black Cats’ box and de Guzman managed to waft a delicious, unsaveable shot from 22 yards which took the slightest deflection off the top of Westwood’s right-hand post on its way in.
The first goal might have been ridiculous but the second was sublime
The third was just careless – the frustrated Craig Gardner chopping down Leon Britton in the box in the 64th minute when the midfielder was going nowhere and had his back to goal – Bony dispatching the spot-kick to Westwood’s right.
Although it was afternoon when Westwood picking the ball out of the back of his net was a familiar sight, the scoreline could have got truly embarrassing had the Republic of Ireland goalkeeper not been in top form.
He produced a wonderful reaction save to block out a fierce de Guzman volley from 15 yards – one of the saves of the season – and he finger-tipped away a Michu header which looked certain to sneak just inside the post
Sunderland’s moment of destiny had come and gone by that stage – just a couple of minutes after Swansea’s second goal, Cattermole had clipped a ball over the top to leave substitute Fabio Borini in a one-on-one with keeper Michel Vorm.
A goal then might have made for an interesting last half-hour, but the Italian lifted his shot well over with his first touch of the game.
And after Swansea had made the result safe with their third goal, they added a fourth for good measure in the 79th minute.
Once again it was cruel on Sunderland and once again it came from a de Guzman corner from the right.
Chico Flores stooped to meet it with a header eight yards out, but his connection was not great – glancing it on to the thigh of Fletcher.
That was enough, though, to send the ball in the opposite direction, completely wrong-footing the luckless Westwood.
There was a cruelty to the defeat – that it should be two own goals, that the first should be the returning Bardsley, that Sunderland should have worked so hard to get into the break on level terms only to have their good work rendered worthless after it.
But there was also a crushing reality here too.
The team with the worst defence in the division had conceded another four.
The team with the second worst goalscoring record in the top flight had mustered just one shot on target against the Swans.
Once again, Sunderland’s flair players had failed to fire.
Once again, the Black Cats had failed to defend set-pieces.
They’re still to record a clean sheet in the Premier League this season in a shocking run which now extends to just two wins in their last 23 games.
If Sunday’s derby runs true to form, Sunderland will be soundly beaten again – the script is now too well-established and predictably familiar to suggest otherwise.
But derbies are notoriously unpredictable affairs.
And Sunderland fans must hope against hope that their team can tear up the form book and produce a tale of the unexpected.