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Pressure mounts on Sunderland after latest demoralising defeat
EYE ON THE BALL: Sunderland’s Steven Fletcher, who scored the first goal at Loftus Road, gets to the ball ahead of Queens Park Rangers’ Clint Hill
WITH Wigan Athletic not in action because of their FA Cup commitments, the league table suggests Sunderland are no worse off now than they were before they kicked off against QPR on Saturday. Unfortunately, the ramifications of a 3-1 defeat to the Premier League's bottom club are not restricted to the figures in the points column of the table.
If Sunderland could be considered fringe figures in the relegation battle prior to their visit to Loftus Road, a fourth defeat in the space of five matches has led to a rapid revision of their status.
Yes, they remain six points clear of the drop zone. Yes, there are still three teams separating them from the bottom three. And yes, they still have nine more matches in which to pick up the two or three wins they probably need to secure Premier League football next season.
But any sense of security has vanished. Given that Sunderland were comprehensively outplayed by a side that had failed to score in their last five league games at Loftus Road, and had previously won at home just once all season, why should things be anything different against Norwich, who visit the Stadium of Light on Saturday, or Aston Villa and Southampton, who are also embroiled in the battle against the drop? And that's before we even get to Manchester United, Chelsea, Everton and Tottenham, who Sunderland still have to face in their last nine games.
“There's obviously pressure and we're fully aware of where we are,” admitted Titus Bramble, who displayed commendable honesty as he sifted through the wreckage of arguably the Black Cats' worst result of the season.
“At one stage, we won a few games and were looking at the top half of the table and targeting a position up there. Now, we're looking over our shoulders and that's a worry.
“Until we win a game, the pressure is going to build and it's going to be tough. In the last five matches, we've lost four and drawn one so that's obviously not good enough. We have to make sure we turn it around as quickly as we can.”
Fair enough. Yet as Sunderland slipped meekly to their 13th league defeat of the season, it was impossible not to feel that this might be a situation that cannot be easily addressed with the players at Martin O'Neill's disposal.
Despite the £30m-or-so that has been invested since O'Neill replaced Steve Bruce 15 months ago, this is a Black Cats side with some debilitating and deep-rooted flaws. Even if they scramble to safety this season – and for all the doom and gloom, the odds remain in their favour – it is hard to see how any meaningful progress can be achieved without some radical, and therefore expensive, surgery.
QPR have been stranded at the foot of the table for the vast majority of the season, yet they carried an attacking threat throughout Saturday's victory, which came courtesy of goals from Loic Remy, Andros Townsend and Jermaine Jenas.
In Remy, a £10m January signing who turned down Newcastle United to move to Loftus Road, they boast an out-and-out match-winner. In Townsend and Junior Hoilett, a duo who ran Sunderland ragged, they can call on players with creativity and blistering pace. And in Jamie Mackie, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Jenas, Harry Redknapp was able to call on attacking substitutes capable of making a difference.
Sunderland had none of the above. Steven Fletcher claimed his 11th goal of the season to fire the visitors into an undeserved first-half lead, but that was only the Scotsman's fourth goal since mid-November, and for all his qualities, he is a striker who relies on a decent standard of service.
There is a chronic lack of pace throughout the Sunderland squad, and the players who were supposed to provide the creative vision this season, most notably Stephane Sessegnon and Adam Johnson, have either shone sporadically, in the case of the former, or not at all, in the case of the latter.
Throw in a ridiculously shallow squad – Sunderland's bench at Loftus Road contained a goalkeeper, five defenders and David Vaughan – and a misfiring defence, whose inadequacies are exacerbated by O'Neill's persistence in playing midfielders in the full-back berths, and you have the makings of a side that will struggle.
“I don't think it's just one thing (that's going wrong), I think it's a combination of factors,” said Bramble. “It sounds obvious, but I don't think we're scoring enough at one end and we're obviously conceding too many at the other. It sounds simplistic, but that's what's happening.
“It's just not coming together. Something's not happening, but if we knew what it was, we'd put our finger on it and deal with it. Sadly, it's not as simple as that. It's a combination of things and we have to work to address all of them.”
It was certainly hard to come up with a facet of Sunderland's play that could be deemed acceptable at Loftus Road despite QPR's perilous position at the foot of the table.
The Black Cats started tentatively and might have fallen behind as early as the fourth minute as Hoilett whistled a shot past the post. Yet, from nowhere, they broke the deadlock in the 20th minute with a classic counter-attacking strike.
Breaking upfield after clearing a QPR set-piece, Fletcher's back-heel sent Sessegnon scampering down the right. The African danced past two defenders to deliver a deep centre, Johnson drilled the ball back across goal, and Fletcher displayed lightning reflexes to prod home from the edge of the six-yard box.
Danny Graham wasted Sunderland's only other chance moments later, heading Seb Larsson's cross over the crossbar, and while there was a degree of fortune in QPR's equaliser with Townsend's shot deflecting into Remy's path off John O'Shea, it was impossible to claim the hosts did not at least deserve parity such was their first-half dominance.
“Once we conceded the equaliser, collectively I think we allowed our heads to drop,” said Bramble. “It was a bit of a case of, 'Here we go again' and we can't allow ourselves to think like that.”
QPR continued to dominate possession after the interval, but it was the 71st minute before they claimed the lead. Townsend displayed impeccable technique to claim Fletcher's defensive header and dispatch a dipping half-volley into the net, but no one tried to close him down as he juggled the ball 25 yards out.
The same failings were apparent in stoppage time as former Newcastle midfielder Jenas picked up a loose ball following a defensive header from David Vaughan and hammered home.
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