AS the rain tumbled down at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland produced a performance in keeping with this week’s weather. Like much of the North-East, the Black Cats are struggling to stay afloat.
While Harry Redknapp will have been reasonably satisfied to start his QPR career with a dour goalless draw, his opposite number, Martin O’Neill, has already seen enough displays like this to set the alarm bells ringing.
Saturday night’s rumours about O’Neill tendering his resignation were completely unfounded. Much more of this, though, and you wonder if he might be tempted.
Sunderland have now won just two of their last 21 league matches, and both victories were achieved against ten men. Last night, against 11 obdurate opponents who only met their new manager on Monday morning, they never looked like increasing their win tally.
They remain in 16th position, although they will only be out of the relegation zone on goal difference if Southampton beat Norwich this evening. We might only be in November, but avoiding the drop already looks like the extent of the Black Cats’ ambition, and on the evidence of their performances so far, it would take a brave man to back them unequivocally.
Precious little is going right for the Wearsiders, so perhaps it was only to be expected that O’Neill’s key selection decision would not work out as planned.
The make up of Sunderland’s midfield has been a key issue all season, and for the first time this campaign, O’Neill opted to leave Jack Colback on the substitutes’ bench.
Colback’s ever-present record had been a source of mounting frustration amongst supporters, with the North-Easterner often appearing to have too many similarities to Lee Cattermole, his regular partner at the heart of midfield.
Yet his exile lasted just seven minutes before he was beckoned from the bench to replace Cattermole, who had not been expected to start after injuring his knee in Saturday’s defeat to West Brom.
The Teessider clattered into a third-minute challenge with Samba Diakite with his usual relish, and could immediately be seen grimacing with pain.
He was withdrawn at the first opportunity, and it is only to be hoped his brief appearance has not inflicted any further damage.
In his absence, Sunderland lacked a natural tackler at the base of midfield, a situation that played into the hands of QPR midfielder Adel Taarabt.
Integral to his side’s promotion two seasons ago, Taarabt has failed to make an impact in the Premier League, but he was involved in most of his side’s best moments last night and his 12th-minute run set up Djibril Cisse for a low strike that was tipped round the post by Simon Mignolet.
Cisse scored 11 goals in 39 matches while on loan at Sunderland, but was sent off when he returned to Wearside last season.
He found himself up against the recalled Matt Kilgallon, and generally got the better of the pair’s personal tussle, with a stinging firsthalf drive in particular coming close to securing the visitors the lead.
That whistled past the post with Mignolet seemingly beaten, but the Belgian justified O’Neill’s continued faith despite his weekend calamity against West Brom with a fine save seven minutes before the break.
Taarabt played Jamie Mackie into the inside-right channel, but Mignolet raced from his line to smother the striker’s low shot. The rebound fell kindly for Taarabt, but Carlos Cuellar hacked away the follow-up shot before it had time to do any damage.
Sunderland could hardly have complained had they fallen behind at that stage, as their own first-half threat was limited. Their attacking had been markedly improved against Fulham and West Brom, but things reverted to type against a hard-working QPR side clearly intent on impressing their new manager.
Julio Cesar was alert enough to tip Cuellar’s looping 18th-minute header over the crossbar, but the goalkeeper was not involved again until he saved a low Steven Fletcher shot with his legs four minutes before the break.
Stephane Sessegnon failed to make an impact from his starting berth on the righthand side, and while his influence increased slightly when he was shuffled infield on the half-hour mark, there was little cohesion between the Benin international and Seb Larsson and Craig Gardner, who were stationed behind him. Adam Johnson played in Fletcher for his 41stminute strike, but this was another uninspired evening from the England international.
On paper, this should have been a Sunderland midfield boasting copious creativity. In reality, it produced a performance every bit as staid and ineffective as so many of the Black Cats’ attacking displays this season.
Second best in terms of possession, particularly after the break, the hosts failed to get enough players into threatening areas. Fletcher found himself isolated as a result, a situation he has had to get used to following his £12m summer move from Wolves.
Most damningly of all, there was a greater urgency about much of QPR’s play, as exemplified by Stephane M’Bia’s surging 58th-minute drive that ended with the midfielder flashing a low drive just past the left-hand post.
Sunderland’s best secondhalf opportunity saw Fletcher plant a header from Larsson’s corner straight at substitute goalkeeper Robert Green. From open play though, the Wearsiders never looked like fashioning an opportunity worthy of the name.
Larsson drilled an 81stminute shot too close to Green, but Sunderland were indebted to Mignolet as he gathered Shaun Wright- Phillips’ driven effort with two minutes left.