Malcolm Dawson writes: to me yesterday was a microcosm of life as a Sunderland supporter. The mood around the ground was one of excitement and anticipation of a new season ahead. The early signs were positive. It was apparent that the new players had qualities their replacements lacked and the attack minded approach was refreshing after the dross of recent seasons. As the half time whistle blew there was nothing to dampen the optimism, except perhaps that despite the pressure and dominance the Fulham goal was rarely threatened. That those hopes were dashed by an opposition snatch and grab and that the subsequent resignation of those around me that defeat was on the cards summed up my 49 years of following The Lads. But I was encouraged by the approach and what is undoubtedly a stronger squad than the one that finished last season. Peter Sixsmith can appreciate my view but asks the readership whether this is justified or just more false optimism …
FALSE DAWN OR JUST A BLIP ON THE WAY TO A NEW ERA?
Matches are won by putting the ball in the opposition net. Matches are lost when you fail to stop the opposition doing the same to you. And that, in a nutshell, sums up the opening game of the season.
It’s the first season opener we have lost since 2006 when we went down 1-2 at the currently empty Ricoh Arena, with Darryl Murphy scoring for a team that was made up of the likes of Ben Alnwick, Rory Delap, Kenny Cunningham and Stephen Elliott.
It is obvious that the team we turned out on Saturday was far superior to that one. We did play some good football at times and looked as if we could do well. But, when the chips were down, we fluffed it.
The general consensus was that the manager had picked the correct side. Westwood deserved a start in goal and Roberge was probably a better bet than Cuellar. The midfield and forwards were easy to sort out – two wingers and Sessegnon playing behind Altidore. It was to be hoped that that would give us sufficient pace and guile to penetrate what was expected to be a resolute Fulham defence.
We worked hard and there were promising signs. We looked to pass the ball and we did and it was, by and large, accurate. We dominated the middle of the field with the impressive Cabral pushing Sidwell out of the way with ease.
Fulham’s job was made all the more difficult by the idiotic Boateng, who committed three fouls under the nose of the referee in the space of eight minutes and was booked leaving more opportunities for Larsson to push forward.
There was good passing and movement, there was solid defending, but what there wasn’t was a finish. Celustka, who made a sound debut, came closest with a thundering shot that Stekelenberg did well to tip over the bar.
Cabral had a couple of shots that went wide, Altidore poked one into the keeper’s arms after he had wriggled away from the ever impressive Hangeland but we never really opened them up in the box. And then, we fell for a sucker punch. A corner from Duff found an unmarked Kasami and we were 1-0 down and chasing the game. And we do not do “chasing the game”. At least we didn’t disappoint in that respect.
The longer the game went on, the more comfortable Fulham became and the more we were inclined to knock the ball up the field or cross from deep. As usual, it didn’t work as Hangeland and his colleagues held firm against our rather limited pressure.
The crowd began to drift away and the new recruits may well have begun to realise that playing for Sunderland can be a bit like having the life sucked out of you.
To look for positives – well, all of the new players looked comfortable. Celustka has pace and can tackle and reads the game well. Roberge looked very comfortable on the ball and Cabral snapped into the tackle and is not afraid to shoot. Giaccherini had some lovely touches and can cross the ball well and should provide Altidore with some excellent service. The American looks a very good player – he is strong, brings others into the game and will be a handful for most central defenders if he continues in this vein.
On the other hand, Roberge missed Kasami and that proved to be crucial. Cabral needs a more skilful partner in midfield to give the ball to when he has won it, Giaccherini faded in the second half and Altidore lacked that final touch in front of goal.
Of the old guard, there was a disappointing performance from Sessegnon and rumours abound that he is off to Qatar in the next few days. He did very little in this game and has shown that he is an enigma. Three managers have shown that they do not know what to do with him. He was the first one to be substituted and was replaced by Ji, a decision which puzzled me. The Korean has not figured in pre-season and was away for most of last year. He has never impressed this writer and he did little to make me change my mind as he missed a straightforward header with six minutes to go.
It is a very disappointing result against a side who had little ambition beyond a goalless draw and who got lucky. These are games that we need to win and although it is the opener and there are 37 left, it is the kind of defeat that chips away at the confidence of players, management and fans alike. Had we had a similar game against Manchester City, Everton or Spurs we could have taken much more heart from it. But we lost three points to one of those teams that are in our league and who we need to beat.
Not the result we wanted and there was a feeling of “Here we go again” as the whistle went and the 250 Fulham fans celebrated. We now go to Southampton (winners at West Brom) knowing that we need to be more clinical in defence and attack. So, nothing new there then.
Finally, a word about the referee. It is usually a critical one but step forward Neil Swarbrick, who had an excellent game. He booked Boateng at the right time and also refused to let Berbatov and Duff run the clock down. If only his Assistants had been Carthy and Thompson.
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