Fulham 0 Sunderland 0

PRIOR to joining Sunderland, John Mensah was nicknamed ‘The Rock of Gibraltar’ thanks to his prodigious defensive strengths.

Last season, as he battled against a succession of injuries that restricted him to just 14 Premier League starts, ‘The Crock of Gibraltar’ might have been a more fitting moniker.

But having shrugged off the effects of a painful shoulder problem to hold the Black Cats back four together in the last two weeks, the Ghana international has reverted to type. With Sunderland in desperate need of a defensive rock, Mensah has once again come to the fore.

He was the stand-out performer on an otherwise tepid afternoon at Craven Cottage, making a succession of tackles, blocks and interventions as Steve Bruce’s side recorded their fifth away draw of the season.

He had been equally impressive in his previous game against West Ham, and after suffering from a multitude of problems during his 18 months on Wearside, most of which have related to a chronic, and ultimately irreversible, back problem, has now completed back-to-back Premier League matches for only the second time.

It is just as well he has. Having already lost Titus Bramble and Michael Turner to long-term injuries, and with Paulo Da Silva frozen out with a permanence that suggests he might well be leaving the North-East next month, Sunderland could ill afford to suffer an injury to another of their centre-halves.

Nine minutes in on Saturday, though, and Anton Ferdinand was clutching his hamstring and hobbling from the pitch.

Nedum Onuoha shuffled across from right-back to plug the gap, but the Black Cats still needed someone to lead the line and blunt a Fulham attack that had scored in all bar one of their home games this season.

Step forward Mensah. The Ghanaian was so effective against Diomansy Kamara, the Fulham striker had to be substituted at half-time. His replacement, Andy Johnson, fared little better, even if Simon Mignolet, playing in place of the hamstrung Craig Gordon, had to produce the only meaningful save of the game to prevent the substitute converting Zoltan Gera’s headed knock-down midway through the second half.

Through a combination of impressive physical strength and equally eye-catching positioning, Mensah ensured Sunderland’s defence would remain unbroken. Little wonder Bruce fought so hard to sign him for a second loan spell this summer.

“Whenever we pick the teams for training, everyone wants to be on John Mensah’s side,” said team-mate Danny Welbeck. “I’ve played against him a few times and it’s a nightmare, so goodness knows what it must be like to play against him in a match.

“When he hits you, you know you’ve been hit. He’s a big guy and he’s fast. He’s an animal really. I’ve never seen a defender like him and he’s always going to be tough to play against.

“He’s deceptive because, when you first see him, you don’t necessarily think he’s going to be that strong. But he times his challenges superbly and reads the game brilliantly.

He’s always making interceptions when, as a striker, you don’t even think he’s there.

“When he’s in the side, we know that any opposition attacker is going to have it tough. It doesn’t matter who they are – they’re going to really struggle to get the better of him.”

Fulham couldn’t manage it, and for large parts of a predominantly unsatisfying encounter, Mark Hughes’ stuttering side were therefore there for the taking. That Sunderland were unable to make a breakthrough either was the biggest disappointment of the afternoon.

Having also failed to win at Wolves and Wigan this season, the Black Cats’ failure to profit from other teams’ failings is perhaps the only thing preventing them from mounting a sustained assault on the European places.

In terms of attacking, this was a particularly impotent off day, with Sunderland failing to record a single attempt on target despite enjoying plenty of possession, particularly before the break.

With David Meyler making his first start since damaging his cruciates in the penultimate game of last season, the priority was clearly to stifle and be difficult to break down.

There should still have been enough attacking talent to make an impact, but with Kieran Richardson reminding his manager why he started the season wanting to play him in defence rather than midfield, the visitors failed to produce the kind of cohesive passing play that might have unlocked the Fulham defence.

In the past, a moment of brilliance from Darren Bent might have been enough to make the difference. At the moment, though, the England international is failing to hit top form, and with Bruce seemingly unsure whether to pair him with Welbeck or Asamoah Gyan, Sunderland’s attacking is fitful rather than fearsome.

“We haven’t played together that often and we’re still really learning each other’s games,” admitted Welbeck.

“We’re really three strikers, but we obviously can’t play three strikers up front.

“Someone is either going to be on the bench or playing a slightly different role out wide. It’s about getting the right balance and I suppose we’re all still working towards that.”

Match facts

Bookings: Richardson (79mins, foul)

Referee: Neil Swarbrick (Preston) - Applied a fair bit of common sense by avoiding his pocket when some meaty early tackles flew in 6

Attendance: 24,462

Entertainment: ✰

FULHAM (4-3-3):

Schwarzer 6; Pantsil 6, Hangeland 7, HUGHES 8, Salcido 6 (Baird 72mins); Davies 5, Murphy 5, Etuhu 4 (E Johnson 72mins); Gera 4, Kamara 4 (A Johnson 46mins 5), Dempsey 6.

Subs (not used): Stockdale (gk), Kelly, Greening, Duff.


7 Mignolet: Made a superb second-half save from Johnson and will be pushing Gordon hard all season

7 Onuoha: Looked perfectly at home when switched to centre-half and could find himself staying there for a while

5 Ferdinand: Lasted less than ten minutes before he was forced to hobble off clutching his hamstring

8 MENSAH: Played through the pain barrier again and dominated his opponents for the second game in a row

7 Bardsley: Another strong showing at left-back, which rendered the normally dangerous Gera ineffective

6 Henderson: The brightest of Sunderland’s attacking players, particularly in the first half, thanks to boundless energy

6 Cattermole: Protected his back four with another restrained and composed display at the heart of midfield

6 Meyler: Neat and tidy as he made his first appearance for more than seven months, but began to tire

4 Richardson: Failed to pose any kind of an attacking threat and was little more than a spectator for large periods

5 Welbeck: Nowhere near as effective as he had been in his previous games up front, but worked away diligently

4 Bent: Failed to record a single shot on target and looked out of sorts in a strangely off-key display


Elmohamady (for Ferdinand, 10): Slotted in effectively at right-back, even though Fulham’s attacking impotence obviously helped. 6

Gyan (for Meyler, 53): Added some energy when he was introduced, but never looked like posing a threat. 5

Zenden (for Welbeck 78)

(not used): Gordon (gk), Angeleri, Da Silva, Malbranque.


JOHN Mensah – The centre-half might be struggling with a shoulder injury, but his assurance and ability are really holding Sunderland’s threadbare defence together.