Sunderland pay heavy price for wasted chances.
Sunderland fell to a sucker punch from Fulham on the opening day of the season at the Stadium of Light after dominating the first half but losing their way and confidence in the second. The team paid a heavy price for wasted chances when Pajtim Kasami headed home from a corner on 52minutes for the only goal of the game to the dismay of the 43,905 crowd.
Paolo Di Canio could not have hoped for a better season-opener than a home fixture against a mid-table team compared to the next series of Arsenal, Liverpool, Man. Utd, Newcastle, Man. City, Chelsea and Tottenham due at the SoL. Yet despite the defeat there were a number of pluses from a rebuilt team - fielding five new signings and another four on the bench – that showed a bit of enterprise and attacking flair if not always quality. The defence apart from the goal from a set piece also seemed competent if largely untested.
The game started lively as Sunderland dominated the play with Jozy Altidore immediately into action, buoyed up from his hat-trick for the US against Bosnia on Wednesday as he gained space, hitting a deflected shot for a corner. Adam Johnson was also soon involved releasing Stephane Sessegnon off-the-ball into the right hand side of the box, but was narrowly offside. Looking particularly assertive, Cabral broke forward and shot narrowly wide in the 6th minute. The midfield look prominent with Emanuele Giaccherini often working down the left with Jack Colback and Altidore continuing to be impressive using his strength and first touches well.
At the other end, the only flashes came from Adel Taarabt with Valentin Roberge blocking a shot and John O'Shea frequently intercepting. Kieran Richardson also tried a couple of times to get forward but his return to the SoL was cut short with a hamstring injury and was replaced by Briggs in the 20th minute. Cabral on another charge had a 20 yard shot deflected. It did not take long for Derrick Boeteng to be booked for his third foul after pulling down Giaccherini. From the set piece, Sebastian Larsson's crossed was blocked and Steve Sidwell turned behind for a corner.
Sunderland continued to have good spells with Altidore again just shooting wide. As the game approached the half-an-hour, it began to be felt that a goal was needed to capitalise on the dominance after Colback played in a great ball and then Altidore so close to getting a debut goal. A fine move by Giaccherini resulted in his shot straight into the arms of Maarten Stekelenburg. The best effort came from Ondrej Celustka, who was quickly finding his feet in the Premier League, when he hit a half-volley from 30 yards into the top corner that the goalkeeper tipped over the bar.
The team were playing more attacking football as promised by Di Canio and next was a lovely off-the-ball run by Giaccherini this time down the right channel followed by Cabral just heading over from the resultant corner. To their credit, Fulham soaked up Sunderland's pressure, with Aaron Hughes and Brede Hangeland playing well together with Sascha Riether, when he had the assistance of Damien Duff. As half-time approached, one began to wonder if a price may be paid for wasted chances. This was only to clear in the official statistics of Sunderland's 11 attempts on goal in the first 45 minutes but only 2 on target, while Fulham had no figures for any effort.
No changes were made at half-time. Sunderland tried again to pick up the pace with a sweeping move down the left by Giaccherini, across to Sessegnon and onto Johnson but who shot well over. Then came the fatal moment as Fulham gained a corner, their only one in the game. Duff played an in-swinging centre to be met by Kasami to head into the net after out-muscling Roberge. “In this country more than any other, set-pieces can cost points. It wasn't even an incredible challenge in the air,” Di Canio said after the match.
Fulham are renowned for sitting back on a lead and doing it well. And so it proved. Sunderland continued to have sporadic attacks forward but the goal seemed to have sapped the team's confidence and flair. A cross from Colback, headed down by Johnson but Cabral mistimed a shot wildly over the bar. Altidore headed another back this time for Johnson to shoot wide with his weaker foot. A few minutes later, it was then Altidore shooting on the turn just wide.
With 25 minutes to go, Altidore combined with Sessegnon but his shot was deflected for a corner, which was again wasted by Johnson. Ji Dong-Won then came on for Sessegnon just before Fulham had to replace Stekelenburg on his debut after injuring his shoulder as he dived to palm out a deflected Giaccherini shot with Altidore rushing in. But there was no Sunderland player capable to take the team by the scruff of the neck as it appeared to lose its way. In the 85th minute, Celustka, who had a reasonable debut, made way for Wickham but it did not produce new ideas. The best chance for a equaliser fell to Ji but was unable to head on target. Another Johnson cross was too near the keeper for Wickham, as the game petered out.
If anything, the game proved how tough it can be in the Premiership with so many players unused to its pace. The team played far from bad but was devoid of quality in and around the box to break open Fulham's well-marshalled defence. Particularly disappointing was the effectiveness of Sunderland's set-pieces, while again conceding from one. Perhaps surprisingly, given that we lost and scored no goals, Sunderland's Man of the Match award must go to Altidore, for both the use of his strength and deft touches, obviously still geed up from the international break.
Sunderland: Westwood, Celustka (Wickham - 86' ), Roberge, O'Shea, Colback, Giaccherini, Larsson, Cabral, Johnson, Sessegnon (Ji - 72'), Altidore. Subs not used: Mandron, Moberg Karlsson, Diakite, Ba, Cuellar.
Fulham: Stekelenburg (Stockdale - 76' ), Riether, Hughes, Hangeland, Richardson (Briggs - 20' ), Kasami, Boateng (Karagounis - 65' ), Sidwell, Duff, Taarabt, Berbatov. Subs not used: Senderos, Ruiz, Rodallega, Bent. Yellow cards: Boateng, Berbatov, Duff
Referee: Neil Swarbrick (Lancashire)