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Sunderland make the most of their lucky breaks
MARTIN O'Neill has spent much of the last two months bemoaning the fact that Sunderland have not had much luck. Yesterday, the wheel of fortune turned in their direction and kept on spinning.
To their credit, the Black Cats made the most of their opportunity, with goals from Steven Fletcher, Carlos Cuellar and Stephane Sessegnon securing only a second league win of the season and hauling O'Neill's side three points clear of the Premier League relegation zone.
But it is hard to imagine a set of circumstances that could have been more to Sunderland's advantage as they attempted to overcome a chronic lack of confidence and claim a crucial victory.
For more than an hour, they played against ten men following the first-half dismissal of Fulham skipper Brede Hangeland for a mistimed challenge on Lee Cattermole. For three minutes in the second half, they played against nine as Mladen Petric was treated for an injury sustained in the act of hauling Fulham level.
Cuellar headed the visitors back into the lead while Petric was receiving treatment, and while Sessegnon's superb driven strike was a goal fit to cap any victory, there was unquestionably an element of serendipity about Sunderland's success.
Nevertheless, the game was still in the balance when Hangeland was dismissed, and after a wretched run of results had sent the Black Cats careering towards the bottom three, there were significant positives to emerge from an afternoon that saw the Wearsiders claim only their second league win in the last 19 matches.
Fletcher's composed finish ended a six-game barren run for the Scotsman and confirmed the efficacy of his finishing instincts, Adam Johnson continued the upturn in his fortunes that had begun in last weekend's defeat at Everton and Sessegnon displayed flashes of the inspiration that lit up much of last season.
There were scares at the other end – Simon Mignolet was forced to make two fine saves even after his side had scored their third – but given that Sunderland's players appeared to have forgotten how to win a game, any kind of success was always going to be welcome. With home games against West Brom and QPR coming up next, the hope is that this is a springboard for similar results in less fortuitous circumstances.
There had been little sign of what was to come prior to Hangeland's dismissal, with the opening half hour providing little in the way of goalmouth action at either end.
Dimitar Berbatov glanced a fourth-minute header wide from Damien Duff's cross, while Seb Larsson curled Sunderland's only chance of the opening 30 minutes much too close to Mark Schwarzer.
The game changed markedly 14 minutes before the break, though, as Hangeland was dismissed for a two-footed challenge on Cattermole.
The Fulham skipper took at least some of the ball before making contact with his opposite number and both of his feet were back on the ground by the time he sent Cattermole tumbling.
However, referees are being instructed to clamp down on any challenge where both feet are airborne at any stage, and in that context, Hangeland could have few complaints.
The irony of Cattermole being on the receiving end of a challenge that resulted in a controversial red card was lost on no one, and had the roles been reversed, it is hard to imagine too many referees giving the Sunderland captain the benefit of the doubt.
Handed a man advantage for the final hour, Sunderland found themselves in a position of rare promise. They had been in a similar situation when Cheik Tiote saw red in the Wear-Tyne derby and almost failed to break Newcastle down – one month on, could they be any more clinical?
They were, with Larsson and Johnson pushing on down the flanks and Sessegnon edging closer to Fletcher to play as more of an orthodox centre-forward.
Fulham boss Martin Jol replaced a midfielder, Giorgios Karagounis, with a defender, Philippe Senderos, shortly after Hangeland's dismissal, but the hosts still came within inches of making a breakthrough when John Arne Riise clipped a 50th-minute shot from the corner of the area against the crossbar. Less than 30 seconds later, the Wearsiders claimed the lead.
The goal was a result of the kind of slick counter-attack that should be Sunderland's modus operandi given the players in their starting line-up, but which has been absent from their arsenal for much of the campaign.
Johnson picked up a clearance close to the left touchline and bent a magnificent low cross behind the Fulham defence. It was perfectly weighted for Fletcher, and the Scotsman calmly claimed possession before slotting home his sixth goal of the season.
Schwarzer did well moments later to turn Johnson's 25-yard curler around the post, and the importance of the Australian's intervention became clear within a minute as Fulham's ten men claimed an equaliser.
It owed much to some desultory Sunderland defending, with Cuellar dropping back to play Damien Duff onside and failing to track Petric as he converted the former Newcastle midfielder's low cross.
Cuellar's despairing lunge was never going to prevent Petric scoring, but it resulted in a gash in the substitute's leg that required treatment. With Jol having used all of his substitutes, Fulham were down to nine men for around three minutes. That was as long as it took for Sunderland to reclaim the lead.
Johnson delivered a teasing corner from the left, and Cuellar made amends for his defensive lapse by glancing a deft header into the corner.
Perhaps understandably, Fulham's players were dead on their feet for the final quarter of the game, and the Black Cats took full advantage by scoring a third with 20 minutes left.
It was the best of the lot, with Sessegnon picking up possession on the left-hand side before cutting infield and drilling a fierce 25-yard shot that found the net via the inside of the right-hand post.