Graeme Anderson’s match report: Fading Sunderland in intensive care

Connor Wickham has this shot saved by West Ham United keeper Adrian. Picture by FRANK REID
Connor Wickham has this shot saved by West Ham United keeper Adrian. Picture by FRANK REID
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GUS Poyet said last week that he would not hold an inquest into Sunderland’s season until the campaign was over.

Were he interested in a preliminary autopsy on the already stiffening corpse though, then last night’s game against West Ham offered him all the information he might need to establish a cause of death.

Toothless in attack and weak at crucial moments in defence, the problems that have bedevilled Sunderland all season continued unabated last night as another bottom-half-of-the-table team came to the Stadium of Light and emerged unscathed.

If, as now seems likely, Sunderland go down this season, it is because they simply were not good enough when it came to scoring goals and not good enough when it came to defending them.

On both counts last night, Sunderland should have done so much better.

Then of course, there were the tactics.

Gus Poyet has threatened to be the saviour of Sunderland’s season, and he still might be.

But his team selections and formations have not been above criticism - particularly for the FA Cup quarter-final against Hull City - and last night’s also had many scratching their head.

In a must-win game against a side boasting just one striker up front, Poyet played three centre-halves in a team which featured SEVEN defensively-minded players and left January Player of the Month and the side’s leading scorer, Adam Johnson, on the bench.

The head coach did it because the same system with Johnson on the bench had worked well at Liverpool in the team’s last outing, with the winger making a tremendous difference as an impact sub.

Poyet hoped that Sunderland would play well in the hour before Johnson arrived on the pitch and would confirm victory when he was introduced.

As a game plan it was acceptable, but it left him open to obvious criticism if Sunderland didn’t get the right result.

And it reminded those with long memories of the first time Sunderland dropped out of the Premier League, when Peter Reid played one up front in a home game against relegation rivals Southampton towards the end of the season - and lost.

Three changes were made to the side which performed so well at Anfield - Marcos Alonso, Ki Sung-Yueng and Fabio Borini coming in for Andrea Dossena, Emanuele Giaccherini and Jozy Altidore.

Poyet persisted with his 5-3-2 formation, playing three centre-halves but expecting his full-backs to act much more as wing-backs with Sunderland having home advantage.

Phil Bardsley, who took over from Mickey Gray as Sunderland’s leading Premier League appearance maker on the night, showed the way from opening whistle.

He put in a great cross from the right in the first minute and then followed it up with a shot from a narrow angle which went fractionally wide of the far post.

Those opening few minutes were all Sunderland and that helped ease the nerves of home fans who knew how much was resting on this game.

Mark Noble was booked just three minutes into the game when he held back Ki as the South Korean broke upfield.

But it was Noble who was to get the assist for West Ham’s opening goal five minutes later when he pumped a corner in from the left to the far post and striker Andy Carroll lost marker John O’Shea and rose above both O’Shea and Wes Brown to head home from five yards.

Vito Mannone got a glove to the ball but could only push it into the net.

It was quite literally a Hammer blow for Sunderland but they hit back quickly and went close to equalising through the unlikely outlet of Lee Cattermole.

Marcos Alonso swept up the left flank and Ki burst into the box down the left and slipped the ball across to Cattermole via Fabio Borini but the midfielder’s left-foot shot lacked power and was blocked by keeper Adrian on the line before the midfielder’s right-footed follow-up cleared the target.

It was part of a decent response from Sunderland, who showed the necessary desire.

But they could easily have slipped further behind in the 19th minute when Noble fed Matt Taylor from the right and the midfielder’s shot from just outside the box curled inches wide of goal with Mannone stranded.

The momentum generally though was with Sunderland and the half-hour approached with the Black Cats putting pressure on the West Ham goal.

It was pressure which continued after the half-hour but always with the same end result - that there was no end-result to Sunderland’s attacks.

In the 34th minute Ki held on to the ball for an eternity in the West Ham box but could find no way through and when he did make the pass it was back to Liam Bridcutt who chipped comfortably over from 25 yards.

This was the pattern of Sunderland’s game - as it has been for so much of the season - against West Ham they had 26 efforts on goal but only a disappointing seven on target.

Hopeful, off-target swipes from distance might draw applause from the fans recognising willingness, but the reality is it only serves to hand possession back to the opposition if it happens time and again.

Sunderland’s pressure though should have paid dividends in the 38th minute when, from a left-wing corner, the ball bounced from O’Shea and Nolan elbowed the loose ball clear from inside the box.

The offence happened right under the nose of referee Howard Webb and was a clear penalty.

But the World Cup referee - who has previously awarded erroneous penalties to Everton and Newcastle United in Sunderland games in recent seasons - waved play on.

The Wearsiders continued to make the running right up to the break but failed to seriously trouble Hammers keeper Adrian and the main talking point in the interval was Webb’s having done Sunderland no favours yet again.

A goal down after the first 45 minutes with Sunderland having dominated, represented a game which was still comfortably recoverable and the home side went on the attack within seconds of the restart - Connor Wickham, who turned 21 on the day, missing out on a happy return when he had a shot blocked and before driving the rebound across goal from the right.

West Ham though landed the killer blow in the 50th minute when they notched their second of the game.

Once again the goal came from a set-piece; once again Andy Carroll was involved.

It was simple Route One stuff but it is the stuff which has kept the Londoners up this season.

The ball was pumped forward from a free-kick just inside the West Ham half, Carroll chested it down into space and Mo Diame arrived on the edge of the box to fire in a low shot which took a deflection and looped into the bottom right-hand corner of Mannone’s goal.

Once again Sunderland responded quickly, pumping the ball into the West Ham area. Once again they could not fashion a clear shot on target.

After Alonso drove a fierce shot wide, Poyet finally brought on Adam Johnson in the 53rd minute at the expense of Lee Cattermole and the substitute was bright and lively from the off, passing well and supplementing attacks.

Craig Gardner was introduced on the hour for John O’Shea as the Black Cats looked to up their attacking threat.

But former Sunderland loanee Stuart Downing should have killed the game off in the 61st minute when he was released up the right-flank, completely hoodwinked Alonso, and drove a low left-foot shot to the far post which Mannone finger-tipped inches wide.

Having escaped the noose at one end, Sunderland threw themselves a lifeline at the other when their two substitutes combined for a fine goal - Gardner putting a ball through a defender’s legs and up to Johnson who cut inside from the right and swept a majestic left-foot shot into the far corner of Adrian’s goal.

It was his 10th goal of the season and only it only served to underline the conviction that he should have been on from the start.

Sunderland might have had a second a couple of minutes later when a long-range shot from Ki was spilled by Adrian and Wickham’s follow-up thudded into the on-rushing keeper’s chest.

Many home fans thought their team HAD equalised in the 70th minute when Johnson found Borini on the left with a perfectly-placed pass and the Italian surged forward before driving in a powerful shot from the edge of the box which struck the outside side netting next to Adrian’s right-hand post.

Sunderland kept going after that but found clear-cut chances harder to come by - producing a string of shots off-targets, while West Ham fed on scraps up front but looked dangerous when they got into the final third.

The last 15 minutes were agony for Sunderland as they piled on the pressure relentlessly but without being able to find the equaliser.

Their best chance came in the first minute of five added on at the end of the 90 when Alonso bulleted a cross over from the left and Sunderland’s third substitute, Nacho Scocco ,headed over from eight yards out.

Like O’Shea’s late, great miss at Liverpool the previous week, it was a fine opportunity and its miss cost Sunderland the chance of salvaging a point.

But to blame Scocco for not getting something out of the game would be as harsh as blaming centre-half O’Shea for not scoring at Liverpool.

The reality is, that it is the all-round averageness of the squad which has cost Sunderland this season, rather than the mediocrity of any one single individual.

Despite the huge set-back in this game, there still exists the dwindling possibility that Sunderland might stay up this season.

But should they not, then fingers can be pointed in many directions - mainly at the key decision makers who brought in the players who are proving simply not good enough to sustain Sunderland’s stay in the Premier League.

Sunderland are dying from self-inflicted wounds.

Preliminary verdict? Assisted suicide.