Sunderland are favourites for relegation this season according to many “experts”, an assessment based on a wholesale replacement of playing staff and the perceived volatility of their manager, Paolo Di Canio. But yesterday they came within two minutes of beating a Southampton team fancied to do well after the third-largest outlay on new players in the Premier League this summer.
Saints would claim a point was the least they deserved, and on the balance of play they had a strong case. Sunderland were not the better side at St Mary’s, and at times the game threatened to become a personal duel between Rickie Lambert and Keiren Westwood, the Sunderland goalkeeper. But Di Canio’s men were impressively resilient after taking an early lead and absorbed everything that Southampton could throw at them until Jose Fonte’s late header cancelled out Emanuele Giaccherini’s early opener. The Portuguese central defender, a veteran of Saints’ days in League One, succeeded where Dani Osvaldo, the club’s £14.6 million record signing from Roma last week, failed.
“I’m more disappointed than happy, especially with the way we conceded the goal,” Mauricio Pochettino, the Southampton manager, said. “It was a wake-up call. At the same time I’m happy with our hard work in the second half. We would have deserved to win on the second-half chances alone.”
Di Canio said: “My defenders did an amazing job against one of the best sides up front in the League. But we had difficulty with set-plays. I need a central midfield player with physical presence.”
Osvaldo began on the bench as Pochettino gave the team that won 1-0 at West Bromwich Albion on the opening day a vote of confidence. Di Canio made two changes to the team beaten by Fulham, bringing in Craig Gardner and summer signing Modibo Diakité for two more new boys, Cabral and Valentin Roberge.
Hampshire police were investigating a 15-person brawl at the Sunderland team hotel on Friday night, and although there was no suggestion that any players had been involved, a loss of sleep could have excused a dozy opening from the Wearsiders, but instead they looked sharp and opened the scoring after three minutes. Sebastian Larsson flighted in a corner from the left and as a knot of Southampton players rushed to the near post, Giaccherini, the shortest player on the field at 5ft 4in, took a couple of steps backwards and found himself unmarked to nod past Artur Boruc from six yards.
Di Canio leapt for joy and the travelling fans sang his name, although all were relieved when a raised flag denied Jay Rodriguez what would have been an equaliser minutes later. And Saints looked sure to level when Lambert’s header from a cross by James Ward-Prowse sped towards the bottom corner, until Westwood plunged to his right to parry.
England’s newest international then almost reached a long free-kick from the left that found its way across the Sunderland penalty area, nodding into the side-netting from beyond the far post. And he climbed above Ondrej Celustka to reach another cross by Ward-Prowse, only to head over the crossbar. But Sunderland held out until the interval.
Southampton put Osvaldo on for the second half alongside Lambert but Sunderland’s half-time substitute, Ji Dong-Won, would have doubled their lead with his first touch if he had not underhit his volley from 10 yards straight to Boruc. And Ji was the creator when Sunderland had another excellent chance, threading a pass through to Jozy Altidore, the American striker’s shot on the turn blocked by Boruc.
But for the most part the second half followed the pattern of the first, with Southampton enjoying the majority of possession. Adam Lallana’s volley from Lambert’s pass faded past the far post and after 57 minutes Osvaldo curled the ball on to the head of Rodriguez, who headed it straight at Westwood. The Sunderland goalkeeper had far more trouble with Lambert’s 25-yarder, palming it away at full stretch.
Pochettino made more changes, taking off his captain, Lallana, in favour of Gaston Ramirez, and moving the versatile Ward-Prowse to a holding midfield role, but the chances continued to come and go. Osvaldo’s moment arrived with 10 minutes left as Lambert nodded the ball across goal. But, under pressure from John O’Shea, he could only head weakly wide, and later only the leniency of Lee Mason, the referee, allowed him to get away with a challenge that might have been worthy of a second yellow card.
Osvaldo’s miss looked as if it would prove decisive until Ward-Prowse lofted a free-kick into the Sunderland penalty area two minutes from time and Fonte outjumped markers and team-mates alike to glance a header past Westwood.
Afterwards, Di Canio said of the hotel incident that he and members of his coaching staff were involved in an altercation, explaining they had been attacked by three drunk wedding-party guests but that no footballers had been involved.
Southampton (4-2-3-1): Boruc; Chambers, Fonte, Lovren, Shaw (Clyne, h-t); Schneiderlin (Osvaldo, h-t), Wanyama; Ward-Prowse, Lallana (Ramirez, 68), Rodriguez; Lambert.
Sunderland (4-4-1-1): Westwood; Celustka, O’Shea, Diakité, Colback (Vaughan, 53); Giaccherini (Wickham, 81), Larsson, Gardner, Johnson; Sessègnon (Ji, h-t); Altidore. Referee: Lee Mason.
Man of the match: Ward-Prowse (Southampton)
Match rating: 6/10