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Sunderland lucky to get a point
Final Score: Sunderland 1 Norwich City 1
MARTIN O’NEILL has been crying out for a helping hand from somewhere in his attempts to turn Sunderland around and yesterday he got one, two and then a third – all on the same afternoon.
Yet, even with the help of the officials, Sunderland could still not conjure up the much-needed win to give the fight for Premier League survival the boost they crave.
Just weeks after O’Neill and his players were critical of Roger East’s decision not to award a penalty for handball in a defeat to West Brom, this time the Black Cats had three big decisions go their way.
But with confidence and performance levels at a real low on Wearside, not even the decision making from yesterday’s man in the middle, Chris Foy, could end a run of seven games without a win.
After Sunderland had conceded an awful opener from a routine corner when Wes Hoolahan made the most of the space afforded to him, Norwich City looked in command.
But then Sunderland got the breaks that should have led to a revival. Firstly the Canaries, with just one win from their previous 12 games, were reduced to ten men when they had their goalkeeper Mark Bunn sent off for deliberate handball.
That meant Norwich faced an hour of playing against the extra man and less than ten minutes later Sunderland were awarded a penalty when Sebastien Bassong used his hand to bring down a John O’Shea delivery.
Norwich had complaints about both decisions but had an even greater complaint just after the hour.
With the scoreline still level, Danny Rose was deemed to have handled Russell Martin’s cross outside the box when he was clearly just inside.
Sunderland could not really have had any complaints had that been given and converted, as they failed to make use of the extra man. Now they head into a run of fixtures with Manchester United, Chelsea, Newcastle and Everton still hovering too close to the bottom three for comfort.
Until the first two major decisions Sunderland looked like a team incapable of scoring, despite bright starts from Steven Fletcher and Stephane Sessegnon.
The early buoyancy had soon faded and a couple of stray passes stuck a dent or two into frail confidence, Norwich quickly sensed an opportunity to make the most of the situation.
After a six-match slump – the most recent poor return of the season – plunged Sunderland back in to trouble, O’Neill knew something different was required.
On the back of the 3-1 defeat at bottom club Queens Park Rangers, he felt it was time to take his £3.8m January buy Alfred N’Diaye out of the midfield.
He was one of three, along with Titus Bramble and Jack Colback, to make way.
The replacements were among Sunderland’s better performers.
The vibrancy from left-back was there again in Rose, while alongside him Carlos Cuellar cleared things up confidently.
The last of the returning trio, David Vaughan, was effective in breaking things up and distributing possession, rarely giving it away.
That never looked like being enough in the early exchanges, when Norwich were at full strength and able to survive a few harmless chances involving Danny Graham, Fletcher and Sessegnon.
When the visitors gained the initiative in the 26th minute Sunderland supporters must have feared the worst again.
Robert Snodgrass’ corner was hopeful rather than exceptional.
Kei Kamara was afforded the space to nod towards goal and Hoolahan had even more freedom to flick the opener over the line from underneath the crossbar.
Neither header should have caused Sunderland a problem, but did. Had it not been for the two difficult calls – albeit justified – from referee Foy, it is easy to imagine that it might have been an even harder afternoon.
By the letter of the law Bunn warranted a red card.
In rushing out to deal with an awful back header from ex-Sunderland man Michael Turner, the goalkeeper’s right arm was hit when the ball bounced up to him.
Bunn, whose departure led to Lee Camp making his debut as a substitute for goalscorer Hoolahan, might have been frustrated with the decision, but the rest of his team-mates joined in nine minutes later.
This time when Bassong’s attempt to chest control O’Shea’s ball into the box, it shaved his left arm on the way down in the penalty area with Fletcher lurking not too far behind.
The flag of assistant Peter Bankes immediately awarded a spot-kick, even though the striker was initially offside.
Gardner powered in the equaliser and the stage was set for Sunderland to go on and win comfortably.
The rest of the match was indicative of their season. Sunderland lacked a creative spark and were unable to dominate things, which almost cost them dearly.
After Graham had wasted a glorious chance just before the break when he turned a rebound from Seb Larsson’s saved drive wide, Sunderland struggled to make chances.
Graham, Adam Johnson and Sessegnon had half chances, but the best of the second half fell to Norwich.
Had it not been for a poor touch from Grant Holt as he ran through on goal, Simon Mignolet is unlikely to have been able to gather.
Without a doubt Rose should have conceded a penalty rather than a free-kick when his right arm prevented Martin’s delivery into the box from causing problems. But Sunderland claimed a point.
Another game over in a campaign to forget for Sunderland.
With eight matches remaining, it already looks like another relegation fight will be the way for the season to end on Wearside.
And judging by the reaction from the stands at the final whistle, the fans know that too.