Still Sunderland remain unbeaten in their home fortress on the north bank of the Wear. Bolton rolled up with their bandwagon yesterday and threw the kitchen sink at Steve Bruce's men. Not that it did them any good.
Sunderland not only held out; they won the game and leapfrogged Bolton into sixth place in the Premier League table, drawing level on points with Tottenham. A diving header by Danny Welbeck in the 32nd minute proved to be the difference in a robust encounter – the fifth goal in six matches from the on-loan Manchester United striker. "If Sir Alex Ferguson gets drunk on his birthday, he might let us keep him," Bruce quipped.
The Sunderland manager happens to share the same birthday as his old boss from his Old Trafford playing days, New Year's Eve, and his team will head into 2011 on a rising tide of expectation on Wearside. "It would be fantastic to see this club playing in Europe," Bruce said, "but let's keep our feet on the ground. I've said all along, 'Can we aim for the top 10?' That hasn't changed."
A point would have put Bolton into fifth and they played with purpose from the start. They had Sunderland in trouble in the 10th minute when Martin Petrov played a beautiful cross-field ball inside Nedum Onuoha to Matt Taylor on the left side of the home penalty area. Taylor cut the ball back from the byline and Kevin Davies unleashed a first-time shot that was cleared by John Mensah.
Wanderers held sway for much of the first half, courtesy of a high workrate that was epitomised by the all-action Davies. It was a clattering challenge by the 33-year-old Bolton captain that caused Mensah to hobble off midway through the first half, prompting a switch from right-back to the centre of defence for Onuoha.
The natives were becoming more than a little restless until a moment of magic from Asamoah Gyan sparked Sunderland to life in the 31st minute, the Ghanaian striker flicking aheader over Zat Knight and dispatching a low shot that was saved by Jussi Jaaskelainen. A minute later Sunderland were in front.
Jordan Henderson floated a ball from the right to Darren Bent on the left edge of the penalty area. The former Spurs man hooked a shot that Jaaskelainen saved but the Finnish goalkeeper parried the ball out to Welbeck, who found the back of the net with a diving header.
Not that it marked a definitive turning of the tide. As half-time approached the challenges became increasingly robust, drawing Bruce to the touchline in protest more than once. The Sunderland manager was mightily relieved, though, when Craig Gordon produced a stunning reflex save to keep out a Knight shot in the final minute of the opening half.
It was a let-off for Sunderland and there was another three minutes into the second half, the referee Chris Foy choosing to keep his cards close to his chest when Lee Cattermole caught Johan Elmander with a late tackle. The Sunderland captain had already been booked for a seemingly innocuous challenge and, Elmander having escaped punishment for a blatant trip shortly before the interval, Mr Foy decided not to risk further inflaming the already incensed home camp. Heated words were exchanged between the two managers at pitch side but there the matter rested.
It was clear that the referee had lost his grip. The big question was whether Sunderland could hold on to their lead. They survived a scare early in the second half when Gordon saved from Elmander but they might have put the issue beyond doubt in the 70th minute. Gyan cut the ball back from the left byline to Welbeck, whose low side-footed shot clipped off the far post and went wide.
Bolo Zenden also sent a header over the bar but at the other end Bolton had a succession of shots blocked before the substitute Ivan Klasnic slashed a clear chance wide in injury time. All of which left Owen Coyle with a rueful smile on his face.
"We didn't deserve to lose," the Bolton manager said. "AmI disappointed? Only with the result."
Referee: Chris Foy
Man of the match: HendersonReuse content