x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Welbeck taking his chances at Sunderland

Displaying a predatory streak and an acute sense of timing, Welbeck is mastering the angled run into the penalty area.

Sunderland are in wonderland. And, no, that is not a reference to England's winter weather.

By winning the battle of the overachievers, Steve Bruce's side retained their unbeaten record at home and returned to the top six. A highest finish of the Premier League era remains very plausible.

Seventh in successive seasons under Peter Reid a decade ago, Bruce's men are aiming higher and further. "It would be fantastic to see this club play in Europe," the manager said.

Working in an excitable footballing region like the North-East, however, presents its own challenges. "One thing we have to dampen is expectation," he added. "We're doing OK."

The last Sunderland side to do so well were overly reliant on the goals of Kevin Phillips. The modern-day team have a triple threat in Darren Bent, Asamoah Gyan and Danny Welbeck.

The last was the match-winner, Welbeck's fifth goal in six games proving the difference. His tally is all the more impressive as the 20-year-old is nominally the left winger.

Instead, displaying a predatory streak and an acute sense of timing, Welbeck is mastering the angled run into the penalty area that is the trademark of the prolific winger - Cristiano Ronaldo, Florent Malouda and Robert Pires are just three to excel at arriving from deeper and wider positions.

Welbeck, who is on loan from Manchester United, however, is proof that none have borrowed as intelligently as Bruce, a former player at Old Trafford, who has raided both halves of the city.

Nedum Onuoha, from Manchester City, was part of a defence who kept a ninth clean sheet of the season, the best record in the league, and the third in a row.

The latest, admittedly, was the product of an astonishing save that prompted comparison with the goalkeeping greats.

When Matt Taylor's corner for Bolton Wanderers was met by Gary Cahill at the far post on the stroke of half time, the latter unselfishly squared the ball for his central-defensive partner. It looked a regulation tap-in for Zat Knight. Instead, Craig Gordon, the Sunderland goalkeeper, somehow performed a magnificent point-blank block to tip the resulting shot over the bar.

"A truly wonder save," said Owen Coyle, the Bolton manager.

"It was probably my only real save of the game," said a modest Gordon. Ivan Klasnic, the Bolton substitute, should have tested him further, but was culpable of late misses.

So Welbeck's goal proved decisive. It followed a Jordan Henderson cross that appeared over-hit, but Bent turned it into a fine ball, an agile example of control followed by a well-struck half-volley.

It struck Jussi Jaaskelainen on his left shoulder, rebounding to the edge of the six-yard box where Welbeck plunged forwards to head in.

He was inches away from a second goal in the 70th minute. After a pull-back from Gyan, Welbeck hit the outside of a post.

It was another chance created by Henderson, whose recent switch to the right is providing a supply line from that flank. Had it gone in, Sunderland would have moved ahead of Tottenham Hotspur on goal difference.

However, they did benefit from the leniency of Chris Foy, the referee. Lee Cattermole risked a third red card of the season when, already cautioned, he chopped down Johan Elmander.

"It's very obvious he clearly caught Johan on the ankle, nowhere near the ball," Coyle said.

The booking Cattermole did incur rules him out of the Boxing Day trip to Old Trafford, when Bruce will be forced to make another change as Welbeck will be ineligible to face his parent club.

"Danny's ability was never, ever in question," Bruce added. "He's very, very popular and he's flourishing. I hope Sir Alex [Ferguson, the United manager] lets us keep him." It is looking ever more unlikely.