Sunderland stay bottom but late show keeps hope alive

Posted by Colin Randall

For a team in Sunderland's predicament, the incentive that presented itself in South Wales on Saturday was an enticing as they come: win by any margin and climb out of the bottom three.

The results from earlier games had been uncommonly kind: Crystal Palace beaten, Fulham thumped, and West Ham, West Brom and Aston Villa all drawing. After the heroics of Goodison, victory at Cardiff was surely within reach.

But Sunderland could only come away with a 2-2 draw. And it could have been so much worse. Far from exploiting the turmoil of a club with an eccentric and apparently charmless owner, a popular and successful manager just booted out, Sunderland started as if two games in three days was simply too much to ask of handsomely paid young athletes.

All the familiar weaknesses returned. Some had been on show at Everton, too, on Boxing Day but there was a resolve on that occasion, and a mixture of fortune and terrific goalkeeping, to keep a clean sheet and claim three points. On Saturday evening, the opening period saw Sunderland outpassed, outmuscled and largely outclassed.

Each threat to Vito Mannone's goal -- including the sixth-minute opener when Jordon Mutch's speculative long-range shot was deflected into the net by Modibo Diakite stemmed from possession being squandered unnecessarily in midfield. Often enough, this led to Andrea Dossena being tormented down the right flank. And Lee Cattermole picked up a worryingly early yellow card for a petulant trip in response to one such surrender of the ball.

Inspired by two good attempts on goal by Fabio Borini -- who would later become the focus of concern over his health -- and also by Ki Sung-Yueng, with one excellent shot on target and another display of controlled football, Sunderland improved in the final third of the half. Ki's effort was pushed by the diving David Marshall into the path of Jozy Altidore, who was perhaps taken by surprise and bundled the ball wide.

But a woeful piece of defensive play early in the second half enabled Cardiff to double their lead. Mutch made a mockery of the attentions of three defenders to send a low cross, which the former Sunderland atriker Fraizer Campbell turned in, watched passively by Valentin Roberge and Dossena.

It looked over. Sunderland fans were reduced to the thought that one win and one defeat from two tough away games had at least produced a point more than two draws.

But their team gradually became stronger, the play more urgent. With seven minutes of normal time left, Steven Fletcher -- on as a substitute after Borini became ill at half-time -- at last found the net again after reacting with a clinical striker's relish to Emanuele Giaccherini's penetrating cross.

He went close to grabbing an equaliser as Sunderland continued to press but it was not until the dying seconds of stoppage time that Jack Colback, like Fletcher a second-half substitute, forced home the second, his shot deflected into the top corner of Marshall's goal, to give the visiting support some reward for the long trek from Wearside.

The late fightback also pleased Sunderland coach Gus Poyet, whose attitude and improved results are winning him more and more friends among supporters. "The only negative is that we didn’t start well, but that’s football, you can’t always be at your best," he said. "The players showed great spirit to come back -- it was unbelievable, Cardiff couldn’t leave their own half. We were attacking well, lots of shots and crosses, everything was one way. It showed we were not willing to accept defeat and then the breakthrough came."

The players told Poyet they wished the game could have lasted a few minutes more, so complete was their dominance at the end. They'd do well to remember that it is better still to play well for longer than the last 30 minutes of a game.

Borini's attacking instincts had been so encouraging before the interval that it must be hoped he will be fit for the massive home game against Aston Villa on New Year's Day. He was taken to hospital as a precaution, having started the match despite already feeling under the weather, but Poyet later declared him to be recovering well.

Four points from trips to Everton and Cardiff -- without John O'Shea and Wes Brown in central defence -- may be hard to fault.

Poyet will have reached the conclusion that survival is a much more realistic proposition. What remains to be done to preserve Premier League status still presents a formidable challenge. But the uphill battle is beginning to look less like an assault on Everest than a testing but achievable ascent of the Cerro Cordillera, the highest point of Poyet's native Uruguay but, at just 1,685 feet, hardly a mountain.

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