Football: Leaders widen gap at the top

Sunderland 2 Crystal Palace 0
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IN A match sponsored by a company called Cleanaway, what other option did Sunderland have but to open up a 10-point lead at the top of the First Division at the Stadium of Light?

Having threatened to leave the rest behind from the start of the season, Sunderland opened up a commanding gap between themselves and second-placed Ipswich, thanks to a Martin Scott penalty and Danny Dichio's 88th-minute strike.

The win took them to the half-way mark in their programme very much in charge, and left Crystal Palace without a win in six games.

Yet it was not a game which oozed class, the level of antagonism such that referee Mike Pike booked a player from either side in the opening minutes. Home tempers were scarcely improved by the decision to disallow Niall Quinn's early strike.

It was a familiar war of attrition for Palace who continue to make life irksome for Terry Venables both on and off the field. There were indications last night though, that Palace's off-field financial situation could be set to improve, albeit at the loss of their best player, Matt Jansen.

Officially, Jansen's absence from Venables' line-up was due to a heavy cold. The alternative theory was that he is poised to join big-spending Blackburn Rovers for pounds 4m.

On the pitch a familiar story of away troubles visited Palace, who fell behind after 33 minutes. The Sunderland midfielder Lee Clark is no gazelle, but he had all the pace necessary to outstrip the veteran defender Andy Linighan. Clark went down under a stumbling challenge which brought the Palace man a booking and Sunderland a penalty, which Scott, their captain on the night, put away comfortably.

That goal gave Peter Reid's leaders a platform and took away some of the early nervousness from their game.

As a result, Sunderland rediscovered their measured style of play, with Clark and Alex Rae at the hub of their creative department, leaving Gavin McCann, a recent pounds 500,000 signing from Everton, to break up Palace's flow on his debut.

Clark's zest should have allowed Sunderland to extend the lead on the hour when he broke clear, only for the shot to be dragged wide.

Sunderland (4-4-2): Sorensen; Makin, Melville, Butler, Scott; McCann (Williams, 81), Clark, Rae, Smith (Gray, 70); Bridges, Quinn (Dichio, 85).

Crystal Palace (3-5-2): Miller; Crowe, Burton, Linighan; Amsalem (Turner, 70), Rodgers, Mullins, Foster, Smith; Morrison, Bradbury. Substitutes not used: Thomson, Petric.

Referee: M Pike (Barrow-in-Furness).