Pajtim Kasami certainly made the most of his unexpected opportunity. The Swiss midfielder, making his first Fulham league start in two years, headed his first goal for his club and secured a scrappy away victory for the Cottagers at the Stadium of Light this afternoon. But victory may have come at some cost for Martin Jol with Kieran Richardson limping off with a recurrence of his troublesome hamstring injury and Maarten Stekelenburg sustaining suspected ligament damage as he repelled a late Sunderland attack.
Kasami, surprisingly drafted into the starting line-up in place of Bryan Ruiz, headed a deep Damien Duff corner in the top corner at the far post after shrugging off the attentions of Valentin Roberge. The 21 year-old playmaker immediately wheeled away to celebrate with manager Martin Jol on the touchline – and Kasami’s tireless running typified the kind of energetic displays that prompted the Fulham boss to part with £3.5m to bring him to Craven Cottage in 2011. His Fulham career failed to ignite – and fell out of favour with Jol after ignoring team instructions and missing a penalty at Chelsea in the League Cup defeat – but Kasami followed up an impressive pre-season with a performance of real character here.
This was a backs-to-the-wall display more in the Roy Hodgson mould than the more attractive, flowing performances that Jol favours, but that won’t bother the Dutchman one bit. He cut a quietly content figure in the technical area as Paolo Di Canio grew gradually more frustrated with his charges. Sunderland enjoyed far more of the possession and had dominated the contest up until Kasami’s header, but, for all their late pressure, the Black Cats failed to seriously test substitute goalkeeper David Stockdale. Substitute Ji Dong-Won spurned the best chance in the last minute of normal time, glancing a downward header wide from Adam Johnson’s inviting cross.
Di Canio named five of his ten summer signings in a much-changed starting line-up and his side wasted little time in imposing themselves on proceedings. Stekelenburg was forced to punch away from underneath his crossbar as Sunderland earned an early corner and holding midfielder Cabral sent a speculative shot narrowly wide from 23 yards. Fulham were forced to an early reorganisation when Matthew Briggs replaced the injured former Sunderland full-back Richardson and with debutante Derek Boateng, booked after a succession of mistimed challenges, struggling to adapt to the pace of the contest, the visitors were struggling to contain Sunderland’s bright start.
The lively Jozy Altidore’s combination of raw pace and power kept both Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes, deputising for the injured Fernando Amorebieta, occupied although the closest the hosts came to breaking the deadlock was through a rising drive from right-back Ondrej Celustka from fully thirty yards, which Stekenlenburg splendidly tipped over at full stretch. Fulham gradually gained more of a foothold in the game, but Sunderland started the second half in a similar manner and Johnson bent a curling effort wide of goal after a swift counter-attack.
The hosts were to pay for their wastefulness in front of goal when Duff’s inswinging corner was emphatically headed home by a delighted Kasami, who found a yard of space at the far post, to beat Kieren Westwood. Jol’s 4-2-3-1 was perfectly designed to soak up the sustained spell of pressure that followed. Altidore looked far more threatening than on his last Premier League outing with Hull but with Hangeland heading away a host of dangerous crosses and Hughes making a couple of crucial interceptions, chances were at a premium. When the American striker did manage to turn Hughes and get a sight of goal, he dragged his shot wide of goal from the edge of the penalty area.
Altidore was bravely foiled by Stekelenburg when he went in turn in the loose ball after Hughes had blocked Emmanuel Giaccherini’s shot. The Dutch goalkeeper successfully smothered the danger, but damaged his right shoulder as he dived at the American striker’s feet, bringing his encouraging debut to a premature end. Ji joined Connor Wickham as Di Canio searched in vain for a late equaliser but the South Korean striker couldn’t repeat his last-minute heroics against Manchester City back on New Year’s Day 2012 with another late goal as the visitors held on to record their third away win of the calendar year.
SUNDERLAND (4-2-3-1): Westwood; Celustka (Wickham 86), Colback, Roberge, O’Shea; Larsson, Cabral; Johnson, Giaccherini; Sessegnon (Ji Dong-won 72); Altidore. Subs (not used): Mannone, Moberg Karlsson, Cuellar, Diakite, Ba.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Stekelenburg (Stockdale 76); Riether, Richardson (Briggs 20), Hughes, Hangeland; Boateng (Karagounis 65), Sidwell; Duff, Taarabt, Kasami; Berbatov. Subs (not used): Senderos, Ruiz, Rodallega, Bent.
BOOKED: Boateng, Berbatov, Duff.
GOAL: Kasami (52).
REFEREE: Neil Swarbrick (Lancashire).