Sunderland's seven-figure transfer call that is starting to pay off after impressive FA Cup display at Fulham
Three minutes before half-time when Sunderland still held a one-goal advantage, Fulham’s Andreas Pereira looked almost certain to equalise.
The Cottagers' midfielder struck his volley cleanly after Manor Solomon’s cross from the left, yet Black Cats defender Daniel Ballard had positioned himself well to make an outstanding block on the line.
After bouncing off goalkeeper Anthony Patterson, the ball somehow stayed out as Sunderland’s defence remained unbreached until half-time.
Eventually Fulham did find a breakthrough as captain Tom Cairney rode the challenges of Edouard Michut and Ballard inside the visitors box, before beating Patterson with a low finish.
Yet despite the leveller in an entertaining 1-1 draw, this was another strong defensive display from Tony Mowbray’s side.
For Ballard this was his seventh consecutive start after returning from a foot injury in December, with fellow centre-back Danny Batth playing alongside him for the last two matches.
Back in the summer, Ballard was the Black Cats’ main defensive signing as he arrived for a seven-figure fee (reported to be just under £2million) from Arsenal, despite interest from other Championship clubs including current leaders Burnley.
Now, after over four months on the sidelines, Sunderland fans are starting to see the best of the 23-year-old.
For large spells against Fulham, Ballard and Batth kept forward Carlos Vinicius under wraps, with the Fulham man recording just 16 touches (according to Whoscored.com) before he was replaced by Aleksandar Mitrovic in the 64th minute.
Ballard also made seven interceptions (more than anyone else on the pitch) as the Premier League side were kept at bay until Cairney’s impressive equaliser.
It should be said that Mitrovic, expectedly, provided a much greater threat as Fulham boss Marco Silva introduced more of his first-team players in the second half.
There was one moment when the striker held off Ballard in stoppage time before firing the ball across the box, allowing Bobby Decordova-Reid to force an alert save from Patterson. Still, the visitors held out to force a replay.
Mitrovic is also the Premier League’s fourth top scorer this season and Sunderland won’t be coming up against that calibre of player every week in the Championship this season.
While Ballard and Batth have had their injury setbacks during this campaign, Black Cats supporters will now hope the pair can now form a settled partnership.