SUNDERLAND // In the end, there was satisfaction from Sunderland at a rousing fightback that might have brought victory. It is hard, though, not to wonder whether come the end of the season this will not feel more like two points dropped rather than one gained.
Sunderland are six points clear of the relegation zone but the sense of gloom that hung over Stadium of Light when they went 2-0 down 11 minutes before half time was clear enough evidence that nobody on Wearside thinks they are safe yet.
Twice in the closing minutes Sunderland had good shouts for handball in the penalty area turned down – once when Emmanuel Frimpong charged down a Stephane Sessegnon drive and then when Philippe Senderos flicked the ball away in the six-yard box – and coming after they were denied a penalty for handball at West Bromwich Albion last week, the Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill was clearly irritated.
"I thought we could and should have won the game," he said. "We had a clear penalty from Senderos handling the ball and the referee's chosen not to give it. I cannot be disappointed in effort. We had enough pressure and decent balls going onto the penalty area to have conjured something."
The last five games, though, have brought just two points and given the previous four games have been against Swansea City, a vulnerable Arsenal, Reading and West Brom, that is reason enough to recall the collapses that have blighted the club over the past decade. The next two games, away at Queen's Park Rangers and at home to Norwich City, take on enhanced importance.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing for Sunderland is that the weaknesses they exhibited were so familiar. Craig Gardner has filled in manfully at right-back, and offers an attacking option with his surges forward, but he looks vulnerable whenever a player runs at him. Ashkan Dejagah went down theatrically after jinking by him, but Gardner had caught him just below the knee. Dimitar Berbatov left Simon Mignolet rooted with the penalty.
Dejagah was instrumental in the second as well, his pace leading a break. He exchanged passes with Bryan Ruiz and when his shot was saved by Simon Mignolet, Sascha Riether tapped in.
Sunderland were offered a path back into the game, though, by a soft penalty decision. Senderos was holding Danny Graham in the area as Gardner dinked the ball over the top but, as the Fulham manager Martin Jol said, it is the sort of thing that usually goes unpunished.
"There's a little bit of contact," Jol said, "but it's never a penalty kick. It gave them bit of confidence." Gardner thumped in confidently.
Sunderland bossed the second half but they lack guile. Sessgnon buzzed on the flanks but their game plan is based almost entirely on getting crosses into the box and hoping Stephen Fletcher can manufacture something.
The equaliser came seconds after Mignolet had saved superbly from Berbatov. Sessegnon broke and found Alan Johnson and when his attempted pass for Fletcher was cut out, the loose ball fell for Sessegnon, who belted it into the bottom corner.
But for all the relief, a draw against a side that had won just two games away from home represents a disappointing result. This has been a season of grind and frustration for Sunderland; there remains danger it will degenerate into a dogfight.
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