Arca's artistry prolongs Sunderland renaissance

Sunderland 1 Nottingham Forest 0
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The Independent Football

Back in August, Sunderland got caught napping on their return to the First Division at the City Ground. Two of Mick McCarthy's players, Jeff Whitley and Sean Thornton, slept in on the morning of the opening match and were dropped. Two first-half goals for Forest consigned the Black Cats to defeat, their 16th in succession. There was no repeat in the return fixture yesterday.

Julio Arca's goal earned McCarthy's men their fifth win in a row, their fourth in succession in a revived promotion campaign. It is Forest who are stuck in slumberland. They have gone 11 League matches without a win now and yesterday's defeat was their fourth in a row in First Division action. Paul Hart cut a forlorn figure as he stood watching the latest reverse at pitch-side. The Forest manager has slipped from number one contender for the Leeds job to number one contender for the sack. And Forest are looking increasingly serious contenders for the drop. They are 21st in the table now, four points above Derby and the relegation zone.

"It's disappointing," Hart said afterwards. "We can play good football. We can pass the ball. But we need results." Forest did beat West Bromwich in the FA Cup last week and they made a promising start yesterday. With five minutes on the clock, Gareth Williams rattled Mart Poom's left-hand post with a rasping drive after Darren Ward's up-field punt and Gareth Taylor's knock-down. It was a close call for Sunderland but it was Forest who were counting their blessings eight minutes later.

From wide and deep on the right, Arca curled a left-footed free-kick around a packed penalty box and into the top left corner. The home fans celebrated but the referee, Martin Atkinson, consulted a linesman and then signalled for a goal-kick. The free-kick had been indirect and, though Stephen Wright claimed he had got his head to the ball, neither official detected a validating touch.

McCarthy was left fuming on the touchline, but at least the perceived injustice stirred his team to life. Marcus Stewart came within a whisker of turning in a low right-wing delivery from Jason McAteer, the diving Ward clawing the ball wide for a corner. Wright also headed wide, but Sunderland were running out of attacking steam by the half-hour mark.

With Forest starting to dictate much of the play with their methodical passing, McCarthy sent on Kevin Kyle for Thomas Butler and switched Tommy Smith from a central striking role to the right wing. The reshuffle had the desired effect, bringing a cutting edge to Sunderland's play and, in the 38th minute, a goal. Arca scored it, burying a left-footed shot from the left edge of the Forest penalty area after Ward had blocked a Stewart drive.

It was the Argentinian's fourth goal of the season and it ought to have been followed by the second of the day for Sunderland, Kyle ballooning the ball over the bar with Ward's goal at his mercy in first-half injury time. It was a miss that set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.

A scrappy second half began with Stewart shooting wide of the target and continued with a series of wayward attempts on the Forest goal. Stewart, Smith and Kyle were all culpable. If Sunderland's shooting was less than accurate, though, Forest's was lamentably absent. For all their neat approach play, they struggled to get past Phil Babb and Joachim Bjorklund at the heart of the Sunderland defence.

With quarter of an hour left, Hart sent on Eoin Jess and Eugen Bopp. Mart Poom, though, untroubled in the Sunderland goal since the interval, remained so to the end.

Sunderland 1 Nottingham Forest 0
Arca 38

Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 26,340