Graeme Anderson’s match report: Still waiting for real spark

Sunderland's Jozy Altidore in action with Southampton's Calum Chambers.
Sunderland's Jozy Altidore in action with Southampton's Calum Chambers.
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IT is the phoney war stage of Sunderland’s season.

Two uninspiring opening Premier League fixtures have barely registered with the paying public and minds are already turning towards tomorrow’s Capital One Cup game against MK Dons.

Not with, it has to be said, a great deal of anticipation.

Everyone is waiting for things to get going, for the season to spark into life.

It would be wrong though to dismiss a doggedly attritional game at St Mary’s on Saturday as a low-entertainment irrelevance, because, over the course of time, this could very well come to be seen as a good point, an important point for the Black Cats.

Obviously, all three would have been ideal, especially given that Sunderland were only a few minutes away from getting them before the Saints finally levelled.

But Southampton, as much as any other in the league, are a side on the march – adding three expensive, top-quality signings this summer to what was already an emerging force.

And although this is only their second season back in the top flight, they are potentially the “best of the rest” this season when you discount the obvious top six sides.

They showed signs of that promise in spells on Saturday when they dominated and threatened to overwhelm a tenacious Sunderland.

But the Black Cats had something tangible to hold on to after Emanuele Giaccherini’s first Premier League goal, in the third minute of the game, and they were not willing to let their advantage slip easily.

Much has been made of the qualities this current Sunderland side lacks – qualities that Paolo Di Canio wants addressed in the transfer window – but we should not forget that they also possess admirable traits – not least stubbornness and application.

And that was typified by the graft and grit of Seb Larsson and Craig Gardner in central midfield and a back four behind them, who frustrated Southampton in the first half.

Gardner was one of two changes to the side which lost 1-0 to Fulham the week previously.

He returned from suspension to replace Cabral, while powerhouse centre-half Modibo Diakite made his full debut in place of Valentin Roberge, who had made the fatal error in the only goal of the game against the Cottagers.

Unsurprisingly, Southampton were unchanged from the side which got a last-gasp winner at West Brom, courtesy of man-of-the-moment Rickie Lambert’s penalty conversion.

Di Canio is an admirer of Southampton’s manager and squad and had warned before the game that this would be one of Sunderland’s tougher challenges of the season.

But the Black Cats could hardly believe their luck when they were gifted a very early opener.

Larsson lofted an inswinging corner in from the left and the Southampton defence raced en masse to the near post, leaving the smallest man on the pitch, 5ft 4in Emanuele Giaccherini completely unmarked seven yards out and he nodded the ball home to keeper Artur Boruc’s left.

It was a great, near comical, start for Sunderland.

And it got even better four minutes later, when home striker Jay Rodriguez squeezed a low shot across Keiren Westwood and into the far corner from the left of goal, only for the flag to be raised for an offside which was marginal at best.

This, though, was not to be a 90-minute rearguard action from Sunderland, as Di Canio’s players got to grips with an effective strategy of containment based on work-rate and discipline.

Still, there was to be some riding of luck.

The ever-dangerous Lambert drilled a free-kick straight into the wall on the quarter-hour.

But he went much closer a minute when the in-form James Ward-Prowse centred from the right and the striker headed down at the far post from close range.

It looked a certain goal, but Westwood scrambled across to block it low down and then smother the loose ball.

The Irishman was to make plenty of saves, but none were better than that.

Suitably encouraged, Sunderland advanced, won a corner, and Larsson’s inswinger had to be beaten off his line by Boruc.

It was the start of an entertaining spell when both sides were looking to take the game to the other.

Southampton nearly got an equaliser when Rodriguez curled a rising snapshot wide with the outside of his boot.

In reply, Altidore almost got a shot on target before Giaccherini rifled a loose ball wide.

By the time the half-hour came up, Sunderland were more than holding their own and Southampton’s attackers were in danger of going down far too easily in the box in a bid to catch the eye of referee Lee Mason, who was being put under pressure by the home crowd.

Lambert, though, went close in the 39th minute when Ward-Prowse put in a cross from the right and the England international headed narrowly over the bar.

It meant Sunderland went into the break the happier side.

And Saints’ boss, Mauricio Pochettino, made two changes on the resumption, with full-back Nathaniel Clyne and record signing Dani Osvaldo coming on for Luke Shaw and Morgan Schneiderlin, who had taken knocks.

Sunderland, for their part, took off the anonymous Stephane Sessegnon for the unpredictable South Korean striker Ji Dong-won.

Arguably the most important change, though, was the enforced removal of Jack Colback in the 54th minute, the full-back having taken a knock in the first half.

That saw Gardner dropped out of midfield and into the right-back position where he looked much less comfortable. And right-back Ondrej Celustka, who had been genuinely impressive, was less eye-catching, if still solid, when switched to left-back.

Colback’s replacement meanwhile, David Vaughan, never exercised the same sort of restraining influence Gardner had managed in midfield and the home team gradually got more and more on top.

Southampton skipper Adam Lallana volleyed narrowly wide in the 51st minute and the hosts should have scored in the 57th when Italian striker Osvaldo crossed from the left, but Rodriguez headed straight at Westwood.

Play switched to the other end where Ji played in Altidore, but the big striker could not reach the ball before Boruc pounced.

Southampton were in the ascendancy from that point, with Lambert – the striker who was to have more shots on goal than any other in the Premier League at the weekend – pulling a great save out of Westwood with a long-range effort which the keeper parried, diving brilliantly to his right.

More opportunities came Saints’ way – Osvaldo was another to head straight at Westwood, Rodriguez lifted a shot over and Lambert drove a free-kick too high when well-positioned.

But John O’Shea marshalled his troops well and Osvaldo – booked for pushing Diakite earlier – was very lucky that referee Mason did not see the striker kick out at Celustka late in the game.

It was a stonewall booking. He should have been sent off, but the Italian got away with it.

And that only added insult to injury when he was fouled by O’Shea for a free-kick which led to an 88th-minute equaliser.

Ward-Prowse lofted the ball into the box from midway inside the Sunderland half and centre-half Fonte lost his marker on the edge of the six-yard box and planted a header past Westwood.

It was hard lines on Sunderland, who had led from the third minute only to be pegged back just two minutes from the end.

But, in fairness, Southampton should have made far more of the many chances that came their way and Sunderland were not really at the races as an attacking force.

In the circumstances, it was a valuable away point.

And if Sunderland could have a good week – a cup win over the Dons tomorrow and victory at Crystal Palace on Saturday – it will look so much the better.

Twitter @sunechograeme