Sunderland 1 Manchester City 2: Vassell gives Keane cause for concern

City substitute nets late winner to leave Black Cats still needing points for safety as awful match finally springs to life
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The Independent Football

As poor a game as is likely to be seen in the Premier League ended in appropriate fashion when the Manchester City substitute Darius Vassell scored one of the scruffiest winning goals seen this side of the war, the Boer War. Put through by Elano after mistakes by Sunderland players Grant Leadbitter and Jonny Evans, Vassell was 10 yards out and sent Craig Gordon the wrong way by completely mis-kicking his shot. With Gordon floored, the ball dribbled past him and in to cap a bizarre eight minutes' action that began with a penalty award to City.

A dreadful first half had been followed by a slightly improved second – due to Sunderland's increased urgency – but an afternoon that was high on expectation was petering out towards what seemed like an inevitable goalless draw.

Then on 79 minutes the teenage City substitute Daniel Sturridge surged into the Sunderland area from the left. Sturridge had come on 20 minutes earlier and this was his first contribution. He cut inside Evans and was running away from Nyron Nosworthy when he went down as if he had been clipped from behind.

Referee Mike Riley clearly thought so and pointed to the spot but the naked eye was confused. Nosworthy did not look close enough to make contact with Sturridge and television replays appeared to show the teenager tripping over his own feet. Sturridge needed treatment and Nosworthy did not complain when booked by Riley, to add to the confusion.

Elano did not feel any debate was necessary and he drilled the ball past Gordon. Suddenly after 78 lifeless minutes, we had some drama.

Sunderland were in shock. Three straight wins had attracted nearly 47,000 to the Stadium of Light but all they had seen was one Kenwyne Jones effort in the 23rd minute. City were offering little going forward, so at 0-0 there was still home confidence that the tempo would be upped in the second half. It was, but Daryl Murphy squandered two good openings and that left the Wearsiders vulnerable to the sort of break Sturridge delivered.

But within two minutes of Elano's penalty Sunderland were level. It was a fine goal, Dean Whitehead climaxing a move featuring Leadbitter, Jones and Andy Reid with an assured volley. The crowd sensed another of those late winners was on its way. They were right but it was for the other team.

Sturridge limped off as Whitehead celebrated and on came Vassell. Elano missed a six-yard open goal on 83 minutes but four minutes later came Vassell's moment. Even though there were four minutes of added time, Sunderland could get no second equaliser and Roy Keane strode angrily down the tunnel.

When he emerged it was to say that Sturridge's penalty was no penalty "but there's no point in complaining about it. A lot of players go down in the box, some just lose their balance. But there's no contact.

"It was a poor afternoon, the game wasn't great and we gave away bad goals. We keep making it hard for ourselves. If I said it once over the last week, I said it five million times: we have a lot of hard work in front of us. Too many at the club have believed this rubbish thatwe're safe."

Sven Goran Eriksson was relieved by City's fourth win in 17 matches but had the grace to admit good fortune. "I'm delighted," Eriksson said, "we had good spirit, good defending, good aggressivity and, of course, a little bit of luck."