MARTIN O’NEILL finally granted many Sunderland fans’ wishes by partnering Steven Fletcher and Danny Graham up front, but their first start together was overshadowed by a player most supporters would want in their team at the moment.
Until Saturday, the Black Cats boss had ignored calls to start his two main strikers together but after two weeks working on their partnership on the training ground, he felt it was the right time to unleash the duo on the Premier League.
Early indications suggested Fletcher and Graham have already chalked up some kind of understanding, but even they couldn’t prevent Sunderland suffering their third successive league defeat at the Hawthorns.
The news that Graham would start was the prematch topic of conversation in the Midlands, but West Brom wasted no time in reminding everyone they have their own deadly strike duo.
One man in particular stood out from the crowd, and that was 19-year-old Belgium forward Romelu Lukaku.
He is on a season-long loan from European champions Chelsea and if he continues the sort of form that has seen him score nine goals in 12 games, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him become a key figure for the Blues next season.
He ran Sunderland’s defence inside out and helped himself to a deserved brace, securing three valuable points and taking Steve Clarke’s men break through the elusive 40-point barrier.
The Wearsiders, on the other hand, still have some way to go before being able to breath easily and their run of three defeats means they remain on 29 points, only five above the bottom three.
Without a doubt their Achilles heel this season has been not performing on a consistent basis, but perhaps even more worrying is the fact they are letting points slip.
The Black Cats have deserved to take something from their last three games against Reading, Arsenal and West Brom, but as things stand that’s not good enough and if they continue this form they could easily be sucked into a battle at the bottom.
O’Neill admits the situation is a concern and insists his side must find a way to take points from games when they have deserved to do so.
“Somebody asked me if I am concerned. I am,” he said.
“Any side in the bottom half are looking over their shoulders until they get the required number of points.
“That we are doing good things and not winning is really frustrating at the moment.
Eventually by Tuesday the performance will be forgotten and it is down as a result.
Peter Odemwingie tussles with Craig Gardner and Titus Bramble
We need to win some matches, we know that.
“In the last three games we could have won or got something out of them.
“Against Reading we should have won and we put unbelievable pressure on Arsenal and should have got a draw. I don’t care what anyone says, but we should have got something out of West Brom.”
He was right. Despite Lukaku’s solo brilliance, the Black Cats had chances to level late on, but they came short and it was from their own doing.
They went behind ten minutes before the break when Craig Gardner was penalised after Liam Ridgewell’s cross struck his arm in the area.
Lukaku stepped up to send his spot kick past fellow countryman Simon Mignolet.
It was a deserved lead, but moments before the interval the Black Cats had their own shout for a penalty turned down.
In a similar incident to Gardner’s handball, an Adam Johnson shot hit Gareth McAuley’s arm, but referee Roger East failed to spot it and O’Neill believes his side were hard done by.
“It is particularly galling, with the contentious refereeing decisions,” O’Neill said.
“We were given the directives at the beginning of the season and all I ask is they are followed.
“If people put themselves there and put their arm out, it’s a penalty.
“On first look I thought the decision against Craig was wrong, but looking at it again it was right.
“It was the same for us at the other end of the pitch. The player has put his arm out. If he holds it down and it hits him it is a definite issue.”
Lukaku grabbed his second of the game with 75 minutes on the clock and the teenager was rewarded for his hard work and persistence. A Ben Foster throw set Lukaku free on the right and after ducking John O’Shea’s challenge, he chased down Titus Bramble’s foolish back pass before Mignolet’s clearance deflected off him and in.
It was the second time this season the Sunderland number one has endured a tough time against the Baggies – he gifted Shane Long a goal at the Stadium of Light – but this time he was unlucky and had his defenders to blame.
Stephane Sessegnon pulled one back four minutes later to give Sunderland a chance, but the Benin international couldn’t inspire a comeback with David Vaughan denied by Foster and James McClean blasting over from eight yards in the dying moments.