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Sessegnon provides Sunderland's most influential African link
FLASHING A HEADER: Danny Graham, still seeking his first Sunderland goal since moving from Swansea in January, beats Steve Sidwell to the ball
IT has been an important week for Sunderland's burgeoning links with Africa.
Not content with their shirt sponsorship deal with one of the biggest charitable organisations on the continent, the Black Cats this week announced a tie-up with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, a charity established by the former South African president to spread a message of reconciliation and social justice.
It is a noble and worthy cause, but when it comes to profiting from their African expansionism, Sunderland's greatest success was visible on the Stadium of Light pitch at the weekend.
In Benin international Stephane Sessegnon, the Wearsiders boast one of the most talented African players plying their trade in the Premier League.
Signed for £6m in January 2011, Sessegnon has sparkled sporadically during his time at the Stadium of Light, but after emerging from a marked dip in form in the first half of this season, the 28-year-old is returning to the levels that made him the key performer in the early days of Martin O'Neill's reign.
Having rebuffed the advances of Liverpool last summer, O'Neill is only too aware of Sessegnon's creative importance to his team. Invest In Africa? The Sunderland boss would no doubt do that in every transfer window if he was guaranteed to sign a player as talented as the one who grabbed Sunderland's equaliser against Fulham.
“Stephane is right back to the best he has played for us,” said O'Neill, after Sessegnon's 70th-minute strike secured a 2-2 draw that lifted Sunderland back above their North-East rivals, Newcastle United, in the Premier League table. “He is playing brilliantly at the minute and was very dangerous throughout the game.
“He is going past players and has regained his confidence, which is a big thing for him. I think the couple of goals he has scored has been a big help in that.
“He's great for us because he can play anywhere in midfield, or down either side. At the minute, with Danny (Graham) coming into the side, he's happy enough in that midfield role. But when Danny came off, he went back into the position he's been playing most of the season (behind the striker) and is equally adept in there as well.
“I said a few weeks ago that if he could add some goals to his game, he would be priceless, and he's doing precisely that. He's been terrific, and a very big player for us recently.”
Sessegnon was the fulcrum of Sunderland's attacking display at the weekend as they overhauled a two-goal deficit to edge another point clear of the bottom three.
Trailing to the two goals they conceded in the opening 34 minutes, the Black Cats were given a lifeline when Philippe Senderos was adjudged to have hauled back Graham in the box, enabling Craig Gardner to drive home his third penalty in the last six matches.
From an attacking perspective, the remainder of the game was the 'Sessegnon show', with the former Paris St Germain attacker forcing a fine low save out of Mark Schwarzer in the final minute of the first half and setting up Alfred N'Diaye for a drive that whistled just past the upright after the interval.
As has been the case in most of Sunderland's recent outings, Sessegnon was always the player looking to get on the front foot and ask questions of the Fulham defence, with his willingness to pass, probe and dribble changing the complexion of the game and propelling the hosts forward in the second half.
His positivity was rewarded 20 minutes from time as he latched on to a loose ball after Senderos had blocked Adam Johnson's attempted pass and swept a crisp low finish beyond Schwarzer.
“It was important to come back because it was a match we felt we had to win,” said Sessegnon. “We could have done that in the end because we had a lot of possession and pressure. After getting the equaliser we had the motivation to go on and get a winner, but to come away with something was important.
“It's difficult to judge our position in the league at the moment because it's not where we wanted to be at the start of the season. We know we've got to put more points on the board and we need to get some wins to stop things becoming nervy.”
Sunderland's anxiety might have been eased had referee Mark Halsey awarded a late penalty when Senderos handled a bouncing ball in the area, but after signalling for two previous spot-kicks, the official shied away from a third.
The issue of what is and is not a handball has become a thorny area in recent weeks, and O'Neill was clearly incensed at Halsey's refusal to penalise Senderos or Emmanuel Frimpong, who blocked Johnson's 79th-minute shot with his hands on the edge of the area.
The Sunderland boss had a point, but defeat would have been harsh on a Fulham side who completely outclassed their opponents in the opening 35 minutes of the game.
For all that the Black Cats deserve credit for their spirited comeback, the desultory nature of their first-half display should not be overlooked and serious questions have to be asked of the hosts' makeshift back four.
Gardner and Jack Colback are midfielders filling the full-back berths, and while the former offers a useful overlapping threat in the attacking third, he rarely thinks like a natural defender.
The 16th-minute foul that enabled Dimitar Berbatov to open the scoring from the spot was a case in point, with Gardner lunging unnecessarily to check a surge from the impressive Ashkan Dejagah that was going nowhere.
Further alarm bells were ringing ten minutes later when Dejagah easily outpaced John O'Shea to reach Schwarzer's long clearance, and while the Iranian dragged his shot across goal, a central-defensive partnership of O'Shea and Titus Bramble will always be susceptible to exploitation by an attacker with pace.
There was plenty of pace to Fulham's second goal, with the Cottagers sweeping the length of the field after clearing a Sunderland corner. Bryan Ruiz played in Dejagah, and while Simon Mignolet saved the midfielder's shot, Sascha Reither was on hand to tap in the rebound.
Mignolet was also involved in the game's pivotal minute, as he made a fantastic save in a one-on-one situation with Berbatov less than 20 seconds before Sessegnon scored.
Mignolet at one end, Sessegnon at the other. It's not exactly a bad starting point if you're trying to fashion a team. The challenge facing O'Neill now is to improve everything in between as he attempts to drive Sunderland forward.