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Johnson hits the heights as Sunderland haul themselves off the bottom
Full-Time: Fulham 1 Sunderland 4
IF, as looks increasingly likely, Sunderland avoid relegation this season, Gustavo Poyet will have achieved something of a minor miracle given that only one other Premier League side has survived after being bottom of the table at Christmas.
And if, as part of the process, he helps Adam Johnson finally realise his full potential, he will have achieved another miracle that is rather more major than minor. Staying up is one thing; solving the Johnson enigma is quite another.
Managers as diverse as Roberto Mancini, Fabio Capello and Martin O'Neill have tried and failed to transform the Easington winger into the world-class performer he has sporadically threatened to be, and only a month or so ago, it looked as though Poyet had joined the list of bosses to have effectively washed their hands of him.
Dropped for seven of the eight Premier League matches between the end of November and start of January, Johnson was in danger of dropping off the radar completely as Poyet set about reassembling the squad he inherited from Paolo Di Canio.
The rehabilitative process began when the England international scored in this month's FA Cup win over Carlisle United, and continued apace when he came off the bench to win the decisive penalty in Tuesday's thrilling Capital One Cup win over Manchester United.
It reached another level entirely on Saturday, with Johnson claiming the first hat-trick of his professional career as Sunderland thrashed Fulham to haul themselves off the foot of the table, and while there have been brief moments of brilliance like this before that turned out to be false dawns, the hope is that this is a more permanent renaissance for a player whose natural talent has never been in doubt.
“You go through spells in your career, and every player will tell you there's times when things just don't go for you,” said Johnson, who is one of only two players to have scored a Premier League hat-trick this season, the other being Liverpool striker Luis Suarez. “You are still trying the same things I was trying, but they just don't come off for you.
“You take one extra touch, and that's the way things go sometimes. But just because players lose form, you don't turn into a bad player overnight. It's just one of those things, and hopefully now it's a new year and a new start.
“I said to myself, 'Let's get back to my old ways'. Self-consciously, I said, 'This is a new year, everything else has gone'. I wanted to do my best, and everything seems to have worked out for me.”
The challenge now is to maintain the improvement, but at least he should be guaranteed a lengthy run in the team in the wake of his Craven Cottage heroics, which featured a magnificent free-kick curled into the top right-hand corner, a precise finish through goalkeeper David Stockdale's legs to round off a razor-sharp counter-attacking move and a late penalty awarded after Philippe Senderos chopped down substitute Jozy Altidore.
Ki Sung-Yeung was also on target for the Black Cats, but even that goal had Johnson's hand all over it, with the winger rolling a pre-rehearsed free-kick into the South Korean's path, enabling him to drive home a first-time finish via a deflection off Senderos.
In many ways, Johnson is the type of player Poyet should adore – positive, technically adept, confident in possession – but there have been times this season when the weaknesses in his game have overshadowed his qualities, most notably when Sunderland have been under the cosh in tight, keenly-contested encounters.
Influencing those type of games is essential if the 26-year-old is to elevate himself from the status of merely being a valuable squad player, and his manager admits that if that doesn't start happening now, it is probably never going to occur.
Ki Sung-Yeung celebrates his goal
“Normally when you reach the age of 27, there are no more excuses,” said Poyet. “You have to be at your best. You are experienced enough, but not old yet, so you should still have your pace and ability. You should understand the game better and have been playing against everybody for quite a while. The pressure should not affect you.
“Johnno's characteristics mean he has to play for a team that has the ball and that will give him the ball at the right time. He needs the space to be able to break. For a player like him, it's not like you can go into any system and just play.
“We have been trying to make things work for him, but it has not been easy. At the beginning we played him on the right, but we were not passing the ball well. Then we played him on the left and asked him to try to deliver. Our passing has worked better in the last two or three weeks and the team was more solid. That has given Johnno the freedom to go and perform.”
He certainly made the most of that on Saturday, although it would be wrong to imply that he was the only Sunderland player to have caught the eye.
Ki was equally excellent, controlling the central midfield area and sparking attacks with a succession of well-judged through balls. The ball that pierced the Fulham defence for Sunderland's second goal was arguably the best pass produced by one of the club's players all season, and it is no wonder that signing the South Korean permanently has become such a priority this month.
The only slight blemish on Sunderland's otherwise magnificent display came when Steve Sidwell was afforded the freedom of the six-yard box to head home Damien Duff's corner, but whereas the Black Cats have collapsed in the face of similar set-backs this season, there was no wobble at the weekend.
Instead, with Lee Cattermole both disciplined and determined at the base of midfield and John O'Shea and Wes Brown forming an increasingly polished partnership at the heart of the back four, the visitors repelled Fulham's desperate attempts to force an equaliser and set about picking off their shell-shocked opponents on the break. The upshot was their biggest victory of the campaign by a distance.