Fulham picked up a useful point at struggling Sunderland this afternoon to help solidify their spot in the top half of the Premier League.
Steve Bruce had targeted this game as an ideal chance for his side, without a win in some fourteen league games, to get their season back on an upward trajectory but they struggled to break down a Fulham defence that was just as resolute as in Thursday’s battling draw against Shakhtar Donetsk that took the Whites into the last sixteen of the Europa League.
For all of Sunderland’s probing, and there was plenty especially in a more open second half, they struggled to create too many clear-cut chances. Fulham managed to keep Kenwyne Jones, the tall striker who has a habit of scoring against the Cottagers, fairly quiet and Darren Bent looked a shadow of the livewire who shot himself into England contention with such a blistering start to the season. Aaron Hughes was forced into a timely interception as Jones burst onto a through ball from Frazier Campbell, but Fulham had already enjoyed the first sight of goal, with Zoltan Gera curling a speculative shot just wide.
The Hungarian was busy in his now customary role behind Bobby Zamora, who was fit to start today’s game despite hurting his Achilles in Donetsk, but he’ll be a bit sore in the money. He twice took hefty whacks to his head in aerial challenges and was caught on the ankle by a late challenge from Kieron Richardson in the second half. Simon Davies was becoming more influential as well for Fulham and his wonderfully flighted pass found Zamora in plenty of space behind the Sunderland defence but the striker, overlooked by Fabio Capello for the Egypt friendly last night, was disappointed to have headed harmlessly wide.
Sunderland perked up a little before the break but their pressure resulted in shots from distance that were simple for Mark Schwarzer to deal with in the main. Jones tried his luck from distance after the ball fell nicely for him in a central position just outside the area but his shot was always heading over the bar. A generous free-kick decision saw Bent test the Australian keeper with a low shot that bounced back off Schwarzer’s body and away to safety before a Danny Murphy mistake allowed Jones a sight of goal but the Trinidadian’s tame effort trickled through to the goalkeeper.
The second period saw markedly more adventure from both sides. Fulham started brightly and it needed a well-timed challenge from John Mensah to halt a dangerous run down the right by Damien Duff. A promising burst from Bobby Zamora led to a Simon Davies shot being blocked, but Sunderland carried plenty of purpose about them as well. Bolo Zenden’s introduction seemed to give them an immediate lift as the Dutch midfielder teed up Alan Hutton for a shot that Schwarzer juggled alarmingly with three red and white shirts waiting to pounce in the six-yard box.
Bent, becoming a little more of a focal point for the home side, sent a shot wide as Sunderland built up a head of steam but Fulham were still threatening on the break. Some lovely patient passing fashioned a chance for Duff and the former Newcastle man was unfortunate to see his effort deflected wide.
A late flurry from Bruce’s men threatened to steal the points but they couldn’t find the finishing touch. Zenden almost embarassed Schwarzer at his near post but sent his shot into the side netting from an acute angle and then the former Middlesbrough midfielder drilled in an inviting cross that reached the sliding Hutton at the far post. Fortunately for Fulham, the right back could only hit the side netting. Campbell should really have done better than spooning a shot high and wide from eight yards after he had taken a touch to set himself and a low cross-cum-shot from substitute Benjani narrowly eluded Bent as the Black Cats failed to find a winner.
SUNDERLAND (4-4-2): Gordon; Hutton, Ferdinand, Turner, Mensah (McCartney 82); Campbell, Richardson, Cattermole (Zenden 53), Cana; Jones (Benjani 80), Bent. Subs (not used): Carson, Bardsley, Kilgallon, Da Silva.
BOOKED: Hutton, Turner, Richardson.
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Baird, Shorey, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy (Greening 57), Duff, Davies; Gera; Zamora (Elm 82). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Kelly, Smalling, Riise, Okaka.
BOOKED: Baird, Zamora.
REFEREE: Martin Atkinson (West Yorkshire).