Swansea 2 Sunderland 2 – Big match verdict

James McClean
James McClean
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FERNANDO Torres and Andy Carroll had their self-confidence flogged by the pressure stemming from a lofty price tag.

Neither excessively expensive frontman was able to make an instant impression at Chelsea or Liverpool, and the beads of sweat gradually began to form on the back of their necks.

But Steven Fletcher clearly has a knack of ensuring any doubts over an investment are banished before they have an opportunity to germinate.

Eyebrows were raised when Mick McCarthy paid £7million to take the Scotland striker to Wolves from Burnley.

But those question marks were erased when he notched just 39 minutes into his Molineux bow.

There was even more scrutiny over the £12m splashed out by Sunderland for the 25-year-old this summer, with the likes of Clint Dempsey, Nikica Jelavic and Papiss Demba Cisse captured in the last nine months for far less damage to the bank balance.

But Fletcher produced on his Sunderland Premier League bow with the kind of penalty box prowess which has eluded the Black Cats since Darren Bent’s pledges of affinity banished at the first sight of a bank note.

The importance of Fletcher’s brace at the rowdy Liberty Stadium cannot be underestimated.

Any mental anxiety from Fletcher has evaporated.

Any scrutiny of O’Neill for investing in the frontman from last season’s basement boys has equally subsided.

Sunderland perhaps paid over the odds for Fletcher, but the heavily-tattooed frontman was always the striker O’Neill wanted and that faith was justified with a clinical double before the Scot produced his trademark slide towards the corner flag for the cameras.

Fletcher’s first transformed a draining encounter into an absorbing one after he took two touches to control Ashley Williams’ under-hit back pass while arrowing towards Michael Vorm on the angle and beating the Dutch stopper with a crisp finish into the far corner.

The second owed much to the opportunism of a natural finisher – pouncing on Seb Larsson’s superb, inswinging free-kick to slide the ball into the empty net at the far post.

Fletcher was off-the-pace on his Sunderland debut against Morecambe last Tuesday, understandable considering he had played just 45 minutes since the curtain came down on Wolves’ stint in the top flight in May.

But, aside from the two goals, Fletcher was a far brighter and sharper prospect than in the Capital One Cup.

He held the ball up astutely, won his share of the aerial tussle with Williams and looked to attack the back post on the rare occasions when Sunderland got crosses into the box.

Although he was replaced just after the hour, every minute counts in the battle for match fitness and by the time Sunderland’s opening Stadium of Light league game arrives against Liverpool on Saturday week, the Scot should be in better shape again.

The problem for Fletcher was the anonymity of his supporting trio.

Adam Johnson, James McClean and Stephane Sessegnon didn’t live up to the heights which their union suggests on paper.

Other than a scorching Van Basten-esque volley from McClean which rocketed just over the bar from Sessegnon’s cross, the three made little contribution other than cheaply surrendering possession to a Swansea side so adept at keeping it.

Too many times Fletcher won the first ball, only for the static supporting cast to miss the opportunity to latch onto his headers or flicks.

When there was an improvement in the trio’s movement, they too often trod on each other’s toes, rather than working in tandem.

But time will help both facets.

It cannot be overlooked that this was the first time Sunderland’s newly-assembled front four had started in the league and the Morecambe victory alone should provide sufficient encouragement that potential can be turned into potency.

The contrast with Swansea’s slick approach play was telling – earning the hosts a point that was the minimum reward they merited.

Michael Laudrup has persisted with the tiki-taka philosophy of predecessor Brendan Rodgers, yet tweaked the system to remove the predictability which was beginning to creep into Swansea’s play in the closing stages of last season.

Swansea move the ball with greater urgency in the final third and show more willingness to chance their arm on a cross rather than beginning yet another pattern of pretty passing – a sensible ploy considering 6ft 2in Michu is clearly adept at late bursts into the area.

During a stellar second-half display – after a largely impotent first 45 minutes – Swansea’s midfield men shone.

Winger Nathan Dyer was the stand-out, almost teasing Craig Gardner and Jack Colback in their doomed efforts to contain him.

But, crucially, Dyer was not alone.

On-loan Jonathan De Guzman was the dominant force in central midfield after Lee Cattermole limped off and was replaced by the overly-eager David Meyler.

And then there was Michu. Towering, powerful, creative and clinical, and surely the bargain of the summer at a measly £2m.

Sunderland couldn’t say they weren’t warned about the trio’s threat.

Three times in the six minutes before Swansea levelled a second time, they had been involved in an effort to set Sunderland’s heart-rate soaring.

De Guzman saw a free-kick palmed away by Simon Mignolet, he then sent in a corner which Michu headed into the turf and over top before the Spaniard set up Danny Graham with a superb through ball, only to be denied by Gardner’s brilliant last-gasp challenge.

They continued to fluster Sunderland even after the dismissal of defender Chico Flores – a 20-minute spell which was the sternest indictment of the Black Cats’ toils going forward after they failed to produce a single effort on goal.

Had Flores not opted to judo kick Louis Saha as he raced down the left-hand touchline, then Swansea would surely have snatched all three points.

Tellingly afterwards, Sunderland’s players weren’t too disheartened at a draw, even after taking the lead twice.

Sunderland know they will improve as an attacking force once their new front-footed approach has greater opportunities to develop.

And, hearteningly, Sunderland are now well aware that there is someone able to add the finishing touches to the slicker system which will undoubtedly emerge.

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