Sunderland 0 Fulham 0

Sunderland are to avoid relegation this season, it looks like being an arduous, unattractive fight.

Point by point, the Black Cats are edging towards safety, with yesterday’s goalless draw with Fulham reestablishing a three-point gap between themselves and the bottom three.

But for all that a clean sheet is not to be sniffed at given Sunderland’s defensive problems since the turn of the year, the booing that accompanied the final whistle of a game that was as devoid of excitement as it is possible to imagine underlined the frustration and fear that currently courses through the Stadium of Light.

Frustration that a season that started with such optimism has descended into yet another unseemly scramble for survival. Fear that after last year’s narrow escape, this could be the year when Sunderland’s luck runs out.

A run of 14 league games without a victory says everything you need to know about the club’s current condition, and yesterday’s performance was the archetypal display of a side slipping closer and closer towards the abyss.

Confidence was impossible to discern, creativity was an absent friend throughout.

Sunderland huffed and puffed for the entire 90 minutes, but lacked the class and composure needed to break down a Fulham defence that was never knocked out of its stride.

Everything about the hosts screamed nervousness, from the agitated Steve Bruce, tearing his hair out in the technical area, to the players, eschewing anything that might have involved risk, and even encompassing the supporters, who grew increasingly agitated in the stands.

A relegation battle does that to you, and this month’s successive home games, against Bolton, Manchester City and Birmingham, will not be for the squeamish.

Similarly, they are unlikely to satisfy any neutrals hoping to extract excitement from ‘the best league in the world’.

Survival is the be all and end all when relegation can entail financial meltdown, and with that in mind, yesterday’s draw was a disappointment rather than a disaster from a Black Cats perspective.

It was a back to basics afternoon, both in terms of selection, with Bruce restoring Anton Ferdinand to the back four, Lee Cattermole to the heart of midfield and Darren Bent to an orthodox attacking berth, and playing style.

It was solidity over style, functionality ahead of flair, and while the resultant lack of attacking meant that neither goalkeeper was forced to make a meaningful save, Sunderland can nevertheless take some solace from a home record that shows them unbeaten since December 15.

Never mind that the grey skies overhead contained more colour than the match.

There was effort and endeavour aplenty, particularly from the midfield axis of Cattermole and Lorik Cana and the attacking unit of Bent and Kenwyne Jones.

There was also solidity, thanks in no small part to Ghanaian centre-half John Mensah, who always makes Sunderland appear more stable on the rare occasions he is fit enough to take to the field.

But there was precious little creativity from first minute to last, and if the Black Cats are to haul themselves clear of the relegation zone in the next month or so, they are going to have to create more goalscoring opportunities than they managed yesterday.

Jones fired a half-volley over the crossbar from 20 yards, while Bent fired a free-kick from similar range straight into Mark Schwarzer’s midriff.

And in terms of first-half attacking, that was pretty much that as far as the hosts were concerned.

With Kieran Richardson repeatedly cutting in from the left-hand side, and Fraizer Campbell looking like a fish out of water on the opposite flank, width was constantly at a premium. Unsurprisingly, it hardly helped matters that centre-back Ferdinand was the man charged with the task of providing the overlapping runs on the left.

Crosses into the Fulham box were few and far between, so with Cana and Cattermole refusing to stray to far from their own back four, Sunderland quickly settled into a pattern of long balls aimed at Jones and Bent.

The former in particular battled away gamely, but Brede Hangeland is one of the Premier League’s unsung heroes, and the Norwegian dealt admirably with the vast majority of things that were hurled in his direction.

Fulham were untroubled before the break, and while the visitors were limited in terms of attacking ambition, they still possessed the game’s most influential midfielder in the shape of Danny Murphy and carved out the only firsthalf opportunity worthy of the name.

Simon Davies’ 25th-minute through ball caught the Sunderland defence square, but while Zamora ghosted between Alan Hutton and Michael Turner, he directed his subsequent header wide of the target.

Zamora, like Bent, is being touted as an outside contender for a World Cup berth this summer, and while yesterday’s game was hardly the best match in which to judge the duo’s credentials, it is hard to imagine either player forcing Fabio Capello into a last-minute rethink.

It was equally hard to ascertain where a goal was going to come from yesterday, even though Sunderland’s attacking carried slightly more of an edge after Bolo Zenden was introduced in the early stages of the second half.

The former Holland international helped set up Hutton for a drive that fizzed straight to Schwarzer, and was also involved in a move that finished with Bent hitting an 18-yard effort well wide.

He went close himself with 15 minutes left, latching on to Jones’ headed flick but shooting into the side netting from a difficult angle.

Former Newcastle winger Damien Duff saw a secondhalf effort of his own deflect narrowly wide at the other end, but after a week that had seen them travel more than 3,500 miles to compete in a Europa League game in Donetsk, Fulham’s players grew increasingly jaded as the game wore on.

That should have been an invitation for Sunderland to crank up the pressure, but save for a shot that Campbell skewed wide, the upsurge in attacking that might have been anticipated failed to arrive.

Match facts

Bookings: Hutton (18, foul); Baird (18, foul); Richardson (22, foul), Turner (62, foul); Greening (70, foul), Zamora (82, persistent foul play)

Referee: Martin Atkinson (Halifax) – Too eager to intervene as he dished out six yellow cards 4

Attendance: 40,192

Entertainment: ✰


6 Gordon: Didn’t have a single save to make as he marshalled his penalty area effectively;

6 Hutton: Rock solid in defence and tried to push forward, even though it was to limited effect

7 Turner: Won a succession of headers and tackles and took up a number of good positions

7 MENSAH: Relished the physical battle with Zamora and deserves to be first choice when fit

6 Ferdinand: Effective in defence in the left-back berth, but understandably limited in attack;

5 Campbell: Displayed plenty of industry, but isn’t a natural right midfielder and it showed

4 Cana: Continues to look a pale imitation of the player who was so impressive at the start of the season

5 Cattermole: Ran himself into the ground, but couldn’t provide a link between midfield and attack

5 Richardson: Comfortable in possession, but never tried to beat his man on the outside;

5 Bent: His effort couldn’t be faulted, but failed to find the target with two half-chances

5 Jones: Won his fair share of headers, but never found himself in a scoring position


Zenden (for Cattermole 54): His willingness to put a foot on the ball and pick a pass made a difference 6 Benjani (for Jones 80) McCartney (for Mensah 84) (not used): Carson (gk), Bardsley, Kilgallon, Da Silva

FULHAM (4-5-1): Schwarzer 6; Baird 6, Hughes 7, HANGELAND 8, Shorey 6; Duff 7, Gera 5, Etuhu 5, Murphy 6 (Greening 58, 5), Davies 5; Zamora 6 (Elm 84). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler (gk), Kelly, Smalling, Okaka, Riise


BREDE Hangeland – The Fulham centre-half, right, displayed commendable composure as he won everything that came his way.