Fletcher’s silver lining only emphasises the size of Sunderland’s cloud

Steven Fletcher watches his header beat Palace keeper Julian Speroni for Sunderland's leveller on Saturday
Steven Fletcher watches his header beat Palace keeper Julian Speroni for Sunderland's leveller on Saturday
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SOMETIMES a silver lining only serves to illuminate the sheer size of the cloud.

Substitute Steven Fletcher’s sweetly-headed 65th-minute leveller – which sadly was to prove the coldest of comforts by the final whistle – showed just what this Sunderland side had been missing up to that point.

The clever, clinical cutting edge the Scot provided held out hope that Sunderland might effect a break-in at the Palace; might turn around a game in which they had struggled at times to show up.

But long before referee Lee Probert blew the final whistle on Saturday night, the weaknesses which were apparent before the equaliser conspired to overwhelm Paolo Di Canio’s men.

Suspect defending, a softness in central midfield, unconvincing wing play and a painfully poor front pairing put Sunderland in harm’s way.

Coupled with a lack of leadership and collective team spirit, those failings proved fatal.

Di Canio argued afterwards that there was little between the two sides in terms of possession, but that was to ignore the fact Sunderland created little when they were holding on to the ball.

And while it was undeniable that “two rubbish goals” cost Sunderland any chance of getting something from the game, that’s what the training ground and the talent is there to avoid in the first place.

It leaves the Italian with an uncomfortable international break to negotiate.

Two weeks in which Sunderland’s failure to prosper against the Premier League’s unleading lights – Fulham, Southampton and Crystal Palace – will be raked over again and again.

Sunderland needed a win over newly-promoted Palace to stave off this level of forensic scrutiny.

But they weren’t helped by three enforced changes, with Jozy Altidore (hamstring), Craig Gardner (groin) and Stephane Sessegnon (off-field problems) all unavailable.

Connor Wickham, David Vaughan and Ji Dong-won were drafted in as replacements, but none of the trio covered themselves in glory.

Perhaps it would have helped if Sunderland had avoided the early goal which was precisely what Palace needed to boost their confidence levels after losing their first three games of the season in league and cup.

But, after a scrappy start from both sides, the Eagles were handed the most welcome of gifts in the ninth minute.

Jose Campana put in an inswinging corner from the left and Marouane Chamakh’s failure to connect with a header at the near post saw the ball drop unexpectedly into the danger zone.

Jack Colback was unable to make contact with an instinctive attempted clearance and the ball flashed across him, struck the knee of Ondrej Celustka in the six-yard box, rebounded off the calf of Danny Gabbidon and past Keiren Westwood.

The fact it was the Palace centre-half’s first goal in 116 Premier League games said it all about the danger he should have represented.

It was a horrible goal to concede – Sunday League stuff.

But worse was to come when Sunderland carved out a great chance to equalise in the 20th minute and wasted it in astonishing fashion.

The groundwork was laid by Adam Johnson and Celustka, who combined well on the right for the Czech full-back to produce the perfect centre for Ji.

All the South Korean striker had to do was nod it goalwards at the near post from five yards out, but he chose to duck under it, sensing a challenge.

“What can I do? I cannot change the heart of my player,” said a fuming Di Canio who, having defended Ji in the wake of a dreadful display against MK Dons last midweek, substituted the striker at half-time and sent him out of the dressing room to languish in the dug-out ahead of his team-mates’ return.

Ji could hardly complain.

His displays against Palace and MK Dons have verged on the incompetent and brought Di Canio’s judgment into question, over the decision to reject a £4m-plus bid from Germany for the forward’s services this summer.

His replacement in the frontline, Steven Fletcher, showed exactly how it should have been done when he marked his return from a five-month lay-off with a goal of the highest quality.

Colback and substitute Charis Mavrias combined with Fletcher high on the left-flank with some skilful passing before the Tynesider centred and Fletcher, who had made the run into the box, planted the perfect header back across keeper Julian Speroni from 10 yards out.

Di Canio, who described Fletcher as “only 40 per cent fit” hoped the equaliser would bring the best out of his players and diminish the home side.

Palace had played as if their Premier League lives depended on it – which it almost certainly did.

And Sunderland needed to find a dominant figure or two, to counteract the sort of drive shown by the Eagles in general, and their skipper, Mile Jedinak, in particular.

Unfortunately, they lacked leaders, just as they had done before the leveller when Jedinak had bossed the centre of the pitch while Jason Puncheon punctured Sunderland time and again with his pace, ably supported by attacking full-backs Joel Ward and Dean Moxey.

Sunderland, meanwhile, had passed the ball around neatly enough at times but failed to genuinely threaten.

That was something underlined by the fact that though possession was shared, Palace had six shots on target, 11 off, while Sunderland troubled the keeper only twice, missing the target eight times.

Fletcher’s goal gave them a lifeline.

But, instead of seizing the initiative, Sunderland played conservatively and that encouraged the home side back into the game.

There was still little in it though, still hope in the hearts of the travelling faithful, when John O’Shea made the most routine of mistakes in the 77th minute to hand the advantage right back to the hosts.

Fatally, for Sunderland’s hopes, the skipper allowed a spinning ball to run past him into the area, not appreciating the ground Dwight Gayle had made up behind him, and O’Shea then brought down the speedy youngster as he sprinted into the box.

There could be no complaints about the red card that followed, or the low, driven penalty from Gayle which went under Westwood’s body as the keeper dived to his right.

Both goals conceded were of Sunderland’s own making – a set-piece and a penalty kick.

And it was always going to be an uphill task for the Wearsiders’ 10 men after that.

Perhaps predictably, it was Palace who produced the greater goal threat in the dying stages before scoring a cracking goal in time added on when Puncheon, on the left of the area, got the ball across to sub Stuart O’Keefe, who curled a fabulous left-foot strike in off the crossbar to Westwood’s right – the final dagger to the heart and a goal which sent Selhurst Park into meltdown.

Defeat leaves Sunderland with one point from nine after three games – joint bottom of the Premier League.

And it also leaves Di Canio facing very real question marks over the progress of the revolution he is looking to bring about at Sunderland.

Only three of his dozen summer signings featured on Saturday.

And the stodgy, unimaginative display offered little hope that this new model Sunderland is going to take the club forwards anytime soon.

All that the fans, who made the long and unrewarding journey to London at the weekend, can hope for, is that new signings made by the end of today, coupled with more work on the training ground, finally starts producing the sort of results they, and the head coach, want.

Twitter @sunechograeme