Graeme Anderson’s match report: Fulham stop Sunderland’s early optimism

NO EXTRA MOTIVATION ... Stephane Sessegnon will line up against Sunderland this weekend.
NO EXTRA MOTIVATION ... Stephane Sessegnon will line up against Sunderland this weekend.
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FURROWED brows, scratched heads, growls, scowls, moans and groans ... this was not how Sunderland supporters were expecting to greet Paolo Di Canio’s brave new world.

Promised by the head coach that they would avoid a “season of suffering”, in 2013/14, their faces and voices told a different story as they streamed away from the first 90 minutes of the campaign on Saturday.

As another manager from another era might have said: “It’s not like it said in the brochure.”

And yet, just an hour previously, things were looking positively rosy in the garden as a Sunderland side featuring five summer signings flourished and flowed and threatened to sweep away unambitious and unimaginative Fulham.

That the Black Cats did not do so, was down to a number of factors.

But the bottom line in football is that only the bottom line counts: Sunderland lost.

And that’s not good news when your next home games are Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United, Newcastle United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Spurs.

Fulham could never be regarded as a home banker – they came into the game unbeaten on their last four trips to the Stadium of Light – but the next home game in which Sunderland can have a similar expectation of winning does not come until December 21, when Norwich City arrive.

In that context, Sunderland needed to be so much more effective against Fulham than they proved to be.

No one, at least, could criticise Di Canio for not going into the game boldly or positively.

He handed full debuts to half of his 10 summer signings – Jozy Altidore, Cabral, Emanuele Giaccherini, Valentin Roberge and Ondrej Celustka all starting – and unveiled his preferred 4-2-4 system, with both wings pushing on at every opportunity.

It was a confident approach and it threatened to pay dividends as early as the first minute when the USA’s midweek hat-trick hero, Altidore, advanced and struck a long-range goal-bound shot which was deflected out for a corner by Steve Sidwell.

An excited crowd of almost 44,000 lapped that moment up and seconds later were chorusing “Paolo Di Canio...” for the first time in the campaign as Sunderland kept the pressure up and the new signings sparkled.

From the corner resulting from Altidore’s shot, Adam Johnson’s ball in from the right was clipped wide at the far post by an eager Giaccherini.

And in the minutes that followed Sunderland continued to tear into the visitors.

Completely on the back foot in those opening stages, Fulham eventually responded.

Powerful, young forward Pajtim Kasami proved a willing worker and on-loan Adel Taarabt a tricky customer, as the defensive skills of John O’Shea, Roberge and Celustka were all tested without serious danger to Keiren Westwood’s goal.

But it was still pretty much one-way traffic for the first half.

And when former Sunderland player Kieran Richardson – given a warm welcome by home fans on his return, unlike Darren Bent – was substituted in the 19th minute with a hamstring strain, the home side really took the game to the opposition.

Roberge and Giaccherini were among those showing some lovely touches as Sunderland passed the ball around delightfully.

And after several strong challenges across the pitch, Fulham midfielder Derek Boateng finally got himself in the book in the 23rd minute thanks to a foul on the Italian.

The Ghana international, losing the midfield battle to Cabral, had to be careful not to be drawn into another rash challenge as Sunderland dominated.

But, for all their positive work, Sunderland created little to test assured keeper Maarten Stekelenburg on his debut.

Cabral fired a couple of snapsnots wide, Giaccherini drove straight at the keeper and Altidore stretched but could not reach a couple of decent balls across the box.

Sunderland’s best chance of the first half actually came not from the boot of an attacker but from right-back Celustka, who unleashed a rocket from range in the 35th minute.

The ball was arrowing towards the top left-hand corner of goal and would have produced a spectacular opener, but the Dutch keeper flung himself full length and tipped the shot wide.

Fulham boss Martin Jol was annoyed by how much his side had been dominated in the opening 45 minutes and the visitors re-emerged with more purpose.

But it was still a complete surprise when Fulham took a 52nd-minute lead shortly after the lively Johnson had blasted wide for Sunderland.

An otherwise quiet Dimitar Berbatov won a corner and when Damien Duff put the ball in from the right, 21-year-old powerhouse Kasami rose on the shoulders of the grounded Roberge at the far post and headed just inside Westwood’s right-hand post.

Coaches will say goals scored and conceded tend to be collective efforts, but Sunderland’s concession was purely down to the failure of the French defender to leap.

Di Canio had faced two big selection decisions – choosing Westwood ahead of summer signing Vito Mannone in goal and newcomer Roberge ahead of Carlos Cuellar in central defence.

It was hard to escape the feeling, on review of the goal, that the head coach might have got one of those decisions wrong.

Martin O’Neill used to joke that Cuellar was an outstanding defender whose weakness came when the Spaniard allowed himself to think he could play good, passing football; in contrast, Roberge distinguished himself as a good passer at the weekend, only for his defending to let him down.

And it was hard to imagine Cuellar being caught out in such a defensive situation in the way his replacement was.

The Stadium of Light fell near silent in shock as fans came to terms with the fact that their almost completely dominant side had somehow contrived to fall behind to what was to be the visitors’ only effort on goal of the game.

Sunderland laboured in the minutes that followed, clearly rattled.

Cabral swung a boot at a hopeful shot from range which was high and wide, Johnson did better with a volley which missed the target by only a couple of yards.

Starved of meaningful support from Sessegnon, Altidore worked himself a chance when he took a long ball down, turned his man and drove a shot just wide of goal in the 63rd minute.

And he was in the thick of it again a couple of minutes later when he fed Sessegnon and sprinted upfield to take the return pass before seeing his shot from right of goal squeezed out for a corner.

But these were sporadic moments of attack and Di Canio knew it and acted.

Trying to inject new life into his side, he send on wild-card Ji Dong-won to replace the ineffective Sessegnon in the 72nd minute and, in a last throw of the dice, Connor Wickham replaced Celustka with four minutes to go.

But neither of the new arrivals could spark any discernible upsurge in performance.

And for all that talk of much-vaunted superior fitness going into the season, Sunderland’s players were unable to run ragged a side which had to cope with two forced substitutions through injuries.

With just over 15 minutes remaining, Johnson played the ball across goal for Giaccherini, whose shot was blocked, the ball spinning towards Altidore but the spin took the ball away from the striker rather than sitting up for him.

A goal at that stage might have made things interesting – might have sparked an onslaught.

As it was, Sunderland came up short – Johnson putting in an inviting cross to the far post in the 86th minute only for Ji to head wide when he should at least have hit the target.

There was still time to get something – five minutes were added on at the end, producing a huge roar from the crowd – but the additional time only dragged out the agony for the home supporters.

At the final whistle, the sense of anti-climax around the ground was palpable.

Rarely can a Sunderland season have started with such excitement and optimism and rarely can those feelings have been doused so swiftly.