Sunderland 1-0 Fulham
Josh Maja’s first ever Sunderland goal has lifted the Black Cats out of the Championship relegation zone, with Chris Coleman’s side picking up yet another clean sheet and our first home win in almost a calendar year in the process.
The Welshman’s second home fixture saw his side avoid the unwanted record of going a full twelve months without a win at the Stadium of Light, seeing off a talented Fulham side.
The manager deserves credit for his three positive second half changes, including introducing the 18-year-old who decided an end to end thriller.
Sunderland and Coleman now have a fighting chance in the Championship relegation battle, whilst Fulham remain stuck in mid-table.
Fulham nearly opened deadlock early on when Ryan Sessegnon flashed an excellent ball across the Sunderland six yard box. An outstretched Stefan Johansen was agonisingly close to an early tap in.
Outside of the Cottagers early half chance, Sunderland made a bright start playing at a quicker tempo and with greater urgency than we’ve seen on Wearside this season.
Darron Gibson saw long range strike parried away unconvincingly by Marcus Bettinelli and Lewis Grabban peeled off his marker to hit the target with a glancing header in the first minute.
The opening quarter saw Coleman’s men struggle to turn territorial dominance into clearcut chances. Sunderland got into good areas, but George Honeyman among others was guilty of producing poor crosses once in behind the Londoners.
Sunderland’s best move of the first half hour was wasted by James Vaughan. Returning to starting line-up, the striker headed backwards, miscalculating badly when picked out by Gibson’s floated cross.
The Black Cats were guilty of switching off after their promising start. Fulham captalised on a half-hearted Gibson challenge to break down the right. Oliver Norwood was well found, but headed just wide from the penalty spot.
Ten minutes before the break Sunderland nearly made the breakthrough. Grabban flicked his near post header wide, from an excellently weighted Adam Matthews cross.
In an increasingly open first half it was the visitor’s turn to force the issue. Tyias Browning showed outstanding awareness to race across and bail out Robin Ruiter after a slick Fulham move released Tom Cairney on goal. The attacking midfielder opened his body up, to place beyond the Dutchman, but Browning raced across to block his shot behind for a corner.
The Wearsiders couldn’t clear their lines and Ruiter was fortunate to get away with spilling a low drive from Johansen.
Fulham finished the half the stronger, but the game remained goalless at half time, with both sides looking dangerous in an exciting and open contest.
Half Time: Sunderland Fulham 0-0
Sunderland showed real intent straight from the re-start,and in the 47th minute Fulham failed to clear a speculative Donald Love cross. Vaughan reacted first, testing Bettinelli with a diving half-volley - the 29-year-old made good contact, but shot straight at the away keeper.
Minutes later Sunderland missed two golden opportunities. Vaughan powered Matthews’ inviting cross back across goal and Bettinelli showed outstanding reflexes to parry away from his area. The ball bounced just in-front of the former England under-21-international, who somehow kept it out.
Next Lynden Gooch tested Betinelli with powerful, low strike from distance - the 25-year-old parried away well. Love recovered the ball back to Grabban, whose shot on the turn flashed wide, with the Fulham stopper beaten.
After a breathless re-start it was Fulham’s turn to mount a sustained spell of pressure, winning a slew of corners and forcing the Black Cats back towards their own goal. Browning made another crucial block, this time denying Johansen as he looked to find the bottom corner.
Then with twenty minutes of the second half gone, both teams continued to push for a crucial opener. Mackem heart’s were in their mouths as Sheyi Ojo rose high above everyone at our back post but, eight yards out, he headed straight at Ruiter, spurning a huge chance.
Coleman’s brave decision to replace his two senior strikers with youngsters Joel Asoro and Josh Maja paid off almost instantly. With less than 15 minutes remaining with his back to goal, Maja turned and finished beyond Bettinelli to give Sunderland a vital lead.
Sunderland held on for that all important victory, avoiding going the whole year without winning at home, finding a victory in their final game at the Stadium of Light in 2017.
Full Time: Sunderland 1-0 Fulham (Maja 77)
Robin Ruiter - 7/10: Still unconvincing, but somehow he’s kept a second consecutive clean sheet.
Tyias Browning - 8/10 : Some brilliant last-ditch challenges, much more assured in possession today, as well.
John O’Shea - 7/10 : Can you believe we’ve seen two good performances in a row from John O’Shea?! We’ve been waiting years for this!
Marc Wilson - 7/10 : A calming presence at the back, finally showing his class on Wearside now that he’s fully fit.
Donald Love - 5/10 : A clear weak link in the Sunderland team - sadly just not good enough.
Darron Gibson - 8/10 : An excellent all round display, arguably our best performer since Coleman’s arrival.
Adam Matthews - 7/10 : Really impressive display considering he’s playing well outside his comfort zone.
Lyden Gooch - 7/10 : worked tirelessly in another impressive showing.
George Honeyman - 7/10 : A decent outlet throughout.
James Vaughan - 6/10 : Worked hard, but missed another big chance as he struggles to convince at this level.
Lewis Grabban - 7/10 : Linked the play with midfield well operating in a deeper role.
(SUB) Didier Ndong 6/10: Quiet game, but great to see the Gabonese international fit again.
(SUB) Josh Maja 7/10: Scored the vital goal, hopefully the first of many.
(SUB) Joel Asoro 7/10: Lively and positive, took the game to Fulham when he came on.
Man of the Match: Darron Gibson.