Football: Sunderland look in different league

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The Independent Online
Sunderland 2 Portsmouth 0

IT WOULD take a brave man to bet against Sunderland playing Premiership football in their Stadium of Light next season. Even such a fearless gambler as Steve Claridge would be tempted to keep his money in his pocket, especially now that Peter Reid's team have taken their haul of points at the top of the Nationwide First Division table to 73.

The latest three points came at the expense of Claridge and his colleagues on Wearside last night. Portsmouth's unbeaten run came to a halt after eight matches, with headed goals in either half by Danny Dichio and Kevin Phillips keeping Sunderland nine points clear of their rivals in the race for promotion to the Premiership.

Claridge could have been excused for flinching as he glanced up at kick- off time to see Kevin Ball back in the home ranks after suspension. Portsmouth's strikingly different forward wrote in his autobiography how Sunderland's former Pompey hard man would lock apprentices in the boot room at Fratton Park and subject them to a game he called "murder ball"; whacking shots at them as hard as he could.

It was a delivery of a more subtle variety that had Claridge and his team-mates suffering in the ninth minute. Allan Johnston's cross from the left was an invitation Dichio could not refuse, Niall Quinn's stand- in planting the simplest of headers past Alan Knight.

It was Dichio's 12th goal of the season but it was not followed by the promise of a second for Sunderland before the break. Despite Ball's presence, the Wearsiders struggled to get a grip in midfield, where Portsmouth enjoyed a one-man advantage, though without creating any scoring chances of their own.

Sunderland started to build up attacking momentum after the interval, Ball firing a right-foot drive inches wide, Michalis Vlachos denying Phillips with a last ditch block and Knight clawing out a curling free-kick from Summerbee. They had to survive a close call, though, before the pressure paid off, Jeff Peron blasting over Thomas Sorensen's bar with the home goal at his mercy in the 58th minute.

Two minutes later Summer-bee crossed from the right, and the unmarked Phillips headed in at the far post. It was the former Watford striker's 24th goal at the Stadium of Light, captured in its simplistic glory by the television documentary crew who followed Sunderland's last season in the top flight. The shooting for Premier Passions, The Sequel, has already begun.

Sunderland (4-4-2): Sorensen; Makin, Butler, Melville, Gray; Summerbee, Clark (Williams, 63), Ball, Johnston; Dichio (Bridges, 80), Phillips. Substitute not used: Smith,

Portsmouth (3-5-2) Knight; Vlachos (Perrett, 68), Awford, Whitbread; Robinson, Igoe (Nightingale, 79), Thogersen, Peron, Simpson; Whittingham, Claridge. Substitute not used: Durnin.

Referee: K Lynch (York).