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Larsson's late strike secures Sunderland a deserved draw
Full-time: West Brom 2 Sunderland 2
SEB LARSSON’S 85th-minute equaliser earned Sunderland a deserved share of the spoils from an entertaining opening-day encounter at West Brom.
Larsson’s side-footed strike secured a 2-2 draw after the Black Cats had watched an early lead overturned by two West Brom goals either side of the break.
Lee Cattermole’s sensational long-range strike earned Sunderland an early advantage, but Saido Berahino’s penalty hauled the Baggies level shortly before the break.
Berahino’s second goal of the game looked like condemning the Black Cats to defeat with 16 minutes left, but Larsson held his nerve to convert a late leveller.
A draw was probably fair on both teams, with West Brom controlling things before the break, only for Sunderland to find an extra attacking gear as they caused a succession of problems in the second half.
Gus Poyet handed senior debuts to midfielder Jack Rodwell and left-back Patrick van Aanholt, but injuries to both Billy Jones and Santiago Vergini meant the Sunderland head coach had to field a cobbled-together back four.
Wes Brown started at right-back, with Valentin Roberge coming in from the cold to partner John O’Shea at centre-half.
The new-look defence was tested in only the third minute, but Brown combined well with Cattermole to deny Berahino a shooting opportunity.
That was Cattermole doing what he does best, but when the ball broke to the midfielder at the other end two minutes later, the Teessider produced a finish that was rather more out of character to open the scoring.
Brown headed Larsson’s free-kick back across the area, and when Jonas Olsson produced a wek clearance, Cattermole controlled the ball 25 yards out before crashing a sensational drive into the top right-hand corner of the net.
The visitors could hardly have wished for a better start, but as West Brom gradually began to assume control of possession, attention switched to the defensive third as Poyet’s side were forced to defend.
On the whole, they fared well, with the Baggies initially being restricted to shots from distance. Summer signing Sebastien Pocognoli shot wide from long range, before Berahino only found the side netting from the edge of the penalty box.
Sunderland struggled to gain possession throughout the first half, but for all that West Brom were in control of the ball for large periods, it was the Wearsiders that should have scored the second goal of the game. Had they done so, the final outcome might well have been different.
Larsson delivered a deep free-kick into the area in the 31st minute, but despite being unmarked at the back post, Roberge could only direct an eight-yard header wide of the target.
It proved a costly miss as after Vito Mannone tipped Craig Gardner’s rising drive over the crossbar, the former Sunderland midfielder, who moved to the Hawthorns in the summer, had a hand in West Brom’s controversial equaliser three minutes before the break.
Gardner rolled the ball into Victor Anichebe in the area, and as the Albion midfielder tried to turn towards goal, Roberge took the slightest of tugs of his shirt.
It should not have been enough to send Anichebe tumbling to the floor, but the former Everton forward went crashing to the ground and referee Neil Swarbrick pointed to the spot.
Berahino stepped up to roll home the penalty, and while the award was undoubtedly harsh on Sunderland, it was hard to deny West Brom a half-time share of the spoils such was their territorial dominance before the break.
The Baggies might well have claimed the lead at the start of the second half, but while Craig Dawson forced the ball over the line after Mannone flapped at a corner, the referee had already blown for a foul from Jonas Olsson. Subsequent replays, however, suggested the decision was every bit as soft as the one to award a penalty before the break.
In fairness to Sunderland, they actually started the second half reasonably brightly, but when a decent opportunity presented itself within seven minutes of the restart, Wickham was unable to convert.
Larsson’s corner evaded everyone in the penalty area, but Wickham could only send a first-time volley into the side-netting at the back post.
Sunderland had the ball in the net on the hour mark, but Steven Fletcher was a yard offside as he headed home at the back post after Brown had flicked on Cattermole’s chipped cross.
The first change of the game saw Jordi Gomez replace Rodwell, who worked hard enough during his 67 minutes on the field, but who still does not look match fit after a disrupted pre-season.
Will Buckley came on to make his Sunderland debut shortly after, but despite being on the back foot for much of the second half, West Brom claimed the lead with 16 minutes left.
Mannone parried Graham Dorrans’ long-range strike, but after Chris Brunt chipped the ball back across the area, Berahino surged past a dawdling van Aanholt to stab home.
Jozy Altidore came on for the final nine minutes as Sunderland effectively switched to a 3-4-3 formation, and Poyet’s boldness was rewarded as his side grabbed an equaliser in the 85th minute.
It was a lovely goal, with Gomez releasing van Aanholt on the overlap, and the full-back pulling the ball back for Larsson to side-foot home from eight yards out.
West Brom (4-2-3-1): Foster; Wisdom, Dawson, Olsson, Pocognoli; Mulumbu, Gardner; Dorrans, Berahino, Brunt (Baird 76); Anichebe.
Subs (not used): Myhill (gk), Yacob, Davidson, O’Neil, Sessegnon, Ideye.
Sunderland (4-1-4-1): Mannone; Brown (Altidore 81), O’Shea, Roberge, van Aanholt; Cattermole; Johnson (Buckley 73), Larsson Rodwell (Gomez 67), Wickham; Fletcher.
Subs (not used): Pantilimon (gk), Mavrias, Bridcutt, Graham.