Plenty talking points, but it’s another anti-climax for Sunderland

SPOT ON ... Craig Gardner scores a penalty against Fulham, but also gave one away.
SPOT ON ... Craig Gardner scores a penalty against Fulham, but also gave one away.
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FOUR goals scored. Four penalty appeals made, two controversially denied, two controversially awarded and converted in contrasting but no less classy styles. One super save from Simon Mignolet.

All this and plenty of front-foot, attacking football in between.

And yet still the feeling at the final whistle for both sets of fans was one of anti-climax.

It wasn’t difficult to understand why.

In a season almost certain to peter out into lower mid-table obscurity for both clubs, this felt like a must-win game if either was to reignite their season; a single point almost an irrelevance.

As they re-adjust their sights this week, both clubs will probably settle for a result which put Fulham back in the top half of the table and took Sunderland to the psychologically important 30-point mark.

But, for the near 40,000 home fans who are reaching the conclusion that the last 12 months has simply been treading water, it was a day which only confirmed their team’s capacity to frustrate and delight in equal measure.

Martin O’Neill responded to a run of three consecutive league defeats – the first in his time as Sunderland manager – by naming a side unchanged from the one which narrowly lost to West Brom.

Opposite number Martin Jol did likewise, sticking with the team that overcame Stoke courtesy of a Dimitar Berbatov stunner and a Mark Schwarzer penalty save.

Sunderland fielded all three of the strikers at their disposal – the Danny Graham-Steven Fletcher strike partnership given its first start at home; Stephane Sessegnon deployed on the right wing where he had been so impressive at The Hawthorns.

But, for the second game in a row, it was central defender John O’Shea who almost gave Sunderland an early lead, once again going close at the near post from an Adam Johnson corner from the right.

He glanced his header into the side netting in only the second minute of the game and a goal then might have made things interesting.

But such imprecision was to be the order of the day from Sunderland, especially from set-pieces where both Johnson and Seb Larsson squandered a host of opportunities, often by failing to lift the ball over the first man.

While Sunderland started brightly enough, Fulham increasingly began to pass the ball around well.

But there was still a gift element about their opening goal which came from the penalty spot on the quarter-hour.

Wideman Ashkan Dejagah wasn’t really going anywhere in the area as he jinked one way and then the other as Craig Gardner stuck out a boot which connected with his shin.

It was a foul, but Dejagah made the most of it, throwing himself to the floor and on another day he might have been booked.

Those thoughts seemed to revolve tortuously through referee Mark Halsey’s mind for several seconds: Book him? Wave play on? Before eventually he chose to point to the spot.

It was a harsh decision, but, by the letter of current laws, a correct one.

And Berbatov reached double figures for the season with a cheekily-taken penalty, psyching Simon Mignolet out before chipping the ball to the Belgian’s left, with the keeper stranded in the centre of goal.

Sunderland laboured to get back into the game, but a failure to boss the midfield, or get effective service from the flanks, hampered them and Fulham were happy to soak up the pressure and hit the home side dangerously on the counter-attack.

They almost succeeded shortly before the half-hour when Dejagah outpaced Gardner from Schwarzer’s long goal kick out before dragging his low shot across the face of goal from the left.

Sunderland should have heeded that warning, but didn’t.

And, in the 35th minute, they conceded from their own set-piece after Johnson’s corner from the right was headed clear by Berbatov.

Dejagah seized on possession and showed far more urgency getting to Sunderland’s 18-yard box than the Black Cats’ centre-halves.

An interchange of passes on the right of goal with Bryan Ruiz saw Dejagah unleash a powerful, low drive which Mignolet, at the near post, could only parry across the face of goal and full-back Sascha Riether was on hand to gleefully tap home.

The mood in the Stadium of Light was grim and you could have heard a pin drop when play kicked off again.

Sunderland desperately needed to get back into the game quickly and, fortunately, they did so from their very first attack – although there was a slight element of good fortune attached when Gardner chipped a ball into the area and Philippe Senderos pulled back Danny Graham.

By the letter of the law, it was undoubtedly a penalty, but such challenges go unpenalised all the time and it felt like Halsey was maybe trying to even things up a little bit when he pointed to the spot.

Gardner’s powerful spot kick, rifled emphatically to Schwarzer’s left, was as brutal as Berbatov’s had been sublime, but it achieved the same result – Gardner now on seven goals for the season, his last three from the spot.

The goal lifted the home crowd and Sunderland might twice have levelled either side of the break.

First, Sessegnon wriggled free of markers in the 43rd minute before crashing in a curling shot which Schwarzer did well to block out for a corner.

But a much better chance presented itself in the 47th minute when Johnson’s cross from the left was diverted by Fletcher to the feet of Graham eight yards out.

It was the sort of opening Graham has made his name from, but this time he could only thump his shot into the turf and straight at Schwarzer when a goal seemed to beckon.

In a game where Sunderland had carved out little and finished even less, such profligacy looked as though it would be costly.

But the Black Cats equalised in the 70th minute thanks to Sessegnon’s second classy finish in as many games.

In scoring, Sunderland got some revenge for the second goal they’d conceded, for this time it was their turn to hit Fulham on the break.

Berbatov should have given his side a crucial 3-1 lead when he reached the six-yard box left of goal, but Mignolet did superbly to block with an outstretched boot, Jack Colback cleared up field and Sessegnon was on the hunt for his second goal in two games.

He drove a diagonal pass out to Johnson on the left of the box and when the winger’s cross was blocked by Senderos, it was Sessegnon who arrived to sweep a left-foot shot into the bottom left-hand corner of Schwarzer’s goal from 17 yards.

Sunderland had had the upper hand before the goal without being able to make their possession count.

The pattern continued through to the end of the game, with Berbatov wasting a couple of clear-cut chances while the hosts attacked continually but struggled to create genuine openings. The Wearsiders had two clear claims for handball late in the game, substitute Emmanuel Frimpong blocked Johnson’s chip by putting both hands on the ball on the very edge of the 18-yard box, while Senderos handled inside his own area.

By the letter of the law, the Senderos handball should have been a penalty. But referee Halsey did not want the game to be all about a succession of penalties and waved play on.

James McClean’s introduction quarter of an hour from time enhanced Sunderland’s attacking threat, although the removal of Graham to accommodate him diminished their penalty box options.

The Black Cats’ boss was probably thinking of getting in-form Sessegnon into a more central position, but many fans were unhappy to see Sunderland reduced from three strikers to two at the very moment they were going all-out for the three points.

Sunderland dominated the closing stages, but, just like their last home game, against Arsenal, were unable to convert pressure into a goal.

And fans streamed away from the Stadium of Light frustrated that their team had once again gone close without going close enough.

The draw took Sunderland up to 30 points, pushed them ahead of the Magpies and increased the belief that the Black Cats will have enough in the remaining 10 games to limp over the line.

But two points taken from their last 15 has taken the steam out of Sunderland and their fans and raised the prospect of a slow, lingering death to the campaign.