Peter Odemwingie made his first appearance as a West Bromwich Albion player since that deadline-day dash to Loftus Road but it was the player he replaced with three minutes remaining, Romelu Lukaku, who was the dominant figure at the Hawthorns yesterday.
The 19-year-old Belgian forward, below, scored both Albion goals to cap an outstanding display of pace and power and earn a deserved standing ovation – quite a contrast with the boos that followed for Odemwingie.
Lukaku’s second goal, which clinched Albion’s first home win since 22 December, offered a perfect illustration of the threat he brought all afternoon. He beat John O’Shea to a 50-50 out on the touchline and then panicked Titus Bramble into an underhit backpass. Simon Mignolet, the Sunderland goalkeeper, got there first but slammed his clearance against Lukaku and the ball flew into the net. Lucky, perhaps, but as a delighted Steve Clarke said, he had earned it.
“When you’re in a good vein of form you get a little luck,” said the West Bromwich manager. “He is a great specimen, but he’s got a good touch, quick feet for a big man.
“We’re just delighted he chose to come here and further his education,” added Clarke of the Chelsea loanee, who, with 12 League goals now, has five more than a certain Fernando Torres.
For Albion, this victory followed up a long-awaited first League win of the year at Liverpool 12 days earlier and lifted them on to 40 points. For Sunderland, by contrast, a third straight loss means they remain just five points above the relegation zone and manager Martin O’Neill cut a frustrated figure afterwards as he pointed to “a number of chances” missed and a “big decision” that went against his team when referee, Roger East, failed to see Gareth McAuley block Adam Johnson’s shot with his arm just before half-time.
Sunderland were certainly unfortunate not to make an early breakthrough when Steven Fletcher rolled a low shot against the far post. Even then they might have scored as Steven Reid’s attempted clearance deflected off Johnson back into the danger area, but Danny Graham was foiled by Ben Foster and Fletcher fired over on the follow-up.
That scare sparked Albion into life. Youssouf Mulumbu steered a free header wide and Lukaku had the ball in the net, but referee East had already whistled for a foul on James Morrison.
Then came the first key penalty decision as East ruled that Craig Gardner had handled a Liam Ridgewell cross and Lukaku duly stepped up and sent Mignolet the wrong way. East then missed McAuley’s handball, much to O’Neill frustration. “I’ve seen both back and both are penalties,” he said.
Sunderland almost responded on the restart when Mulumbu cleared Stéphane Sessègnon’s shot off the line yet Lukaku, working well in tandem with Shane Long, remained a constant menace, with Mignolet denying him more than once – notably from a thunderous strike after he was played in by the excellent Morrison.
Eventually, in the 75th minute, Lukaku did make it two, though the contest was not over and four minutes later Sessègnon curled a shot into the top corner from 12 yards.
Cue a frantic finish in which Odemwingie flashed a shot across goal and James McClean stabbed over from close range at the other end.
West Bromwich Albion (4-4-2): Foster; Reid, McAuley, Olsson, Ridgewell; Morrison (Fortune, 84), Mulumbu, Yacob, Brunt; Lukaku (Odemwingie, 87), Long (Dorrans, 66).
Sunderland (4-4-2): Mignolet; Gardner, Bramble, O’Shea, Colback; Sessègnon, Larsson (Vaughan, 76), N’Diaye, Johnson (McClean, 76); Fletcher, Graham.
Referee: Roger East.
Man of the match: Lukaku (West Bromwich Albion) Match rating: 7/10.