This was just what Sunderland had been waiting for. For the first time this season, their talented attackers all played well in combination. For the first time since he arrived, Adam Johnson showed why he is an England international. And for the first time since 4 February, Sunderland won an away league game.
When Johnson and Steven Fletcher were bought in the summer there was hope on Wearside of a new birth of attacking football. Although Fletcher started with five goals in his first four league games, he had received little support from his team-mates, Johnson included. Before yesterday, Sunderland had looked like a team struggling to find their voice, with one win and seven goals from their first 10 league games.
But yesterday, in the second half, Sunderland finally looked like the side they were meant to be, scoring three goals within 20 minutes to win the game. Fletcher, Johnson and Stephane Sessegnon combined and attacked with the imagination and precision Sunderland have lacked all season. It was almost a surprise watching them that it had taken that long.
Despite a poor first half, the only incident of which was Brede Hangeland being sent off for a two-footed tackle on Lee Cattermole, the visitors were far better after the break. Five minutes after the restart, Johnson produced his single finest moment of quality in a Sunderland shirt so far. Breaking after a Fulham corner, Johnson had the ball near the half-way line on the left and bent a wonderful diagonal pass around the back of Philippe Senderos and into the path of Fletcher, who scored. Sunderland had been waiting all season for those two to combine so effectively.
Johnson, finally playing with confidence, tried a subtle chip to Sessegnon which nearly came off before curling a left-footed shot towards the bottom corner, inducing a desperate save from Mark Schwarzer. Damien Duff equalised before Johnson returned Sunderland to the lead, perfectly finding Carlos Cuellar’s forehead from a corner.
With an advantage of numbers and goals, Sunderland continued to push for a third. It came with 20 minutes left when Fletcher broke down the left and found Sessegnon, who spun inside and shot into the far top corner. It was the quality he had seemed to have misplaced over the summer. “Sessegnon has been searching for that confidence all season,” Martin O’Neill said afterwards. “He can strike the ball. You wouldn’t have thought that from the first six of seven games of the season but he’s taking it onto the pitch now.”
Fulham’s ten tired men could not cope with Sunderland’s pace but they performed admirably throughout. They could never quite find a rhythm, losing Alexander Kacanikilic to injury before Hangeland was sent off. It was not a malicious tackle but with two feet off the ground Hangeland could have no complaints.
To their credit, Fulham continued to attack and when Bryan Ruiz limped off Martin Jol threw on striker Mladen Petric, even with Hugo Rodallega and Dimitar Berbatov already on the pitch. Petric nearly scored with his first touch but shot over. He only had to wait a few minutes before scoring the equaliser, sweeping in Damien Duff’s cross after Duff had exchanged passes with Rodallega.
Petric continued to lead the charge and nearly made it 3-2, dancing inside Cuellar before shooting at Simon Mignolet. Hughes also tested the goalkeeper but Sunderland were too firm in defence.
“We became a bit sloppy, maybe because we hadn't won for some time,” explained a delighted but relieved O’Neill afterwards, “but we ended up with the win. It was just what we needed.”
Fulham (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer 7; Riether, Hughes 5, Hangeland 3, Riise 6; Sidwell 6, Karagounis 5 (Senderos, 35, 4); Duff 6, Ruiz 5 (Petric, 60, 7), Kacanikilic 5 (Rodallega, 28, 6); Berbatov 6
Sunderland (4-4-1-1): Mignolet 8; Bardsley 6, O’Shea 7, Cuellar 6, Rose 6; Larsson 6 (McClean, 70), Cattermole 7, Colback 6 (Vaughan, 79), Johnson 8; Sessegnon 7; Fletcher 8
Man of the Match: Johnson (Sunderland)
Match Rating: 6