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Blunt Sunderland beaten at Blackburn
WHEN Sunderland beat Blackburn Rovers in Martin O'Neill's first game as manager, they embarked on a run of eight wins from 12 matches that rapidly transformed their season.
The hope, after last night's 2-0 defeat to the same opponents at Ewood Park, is that an identical process is not about to begin in reverse.
It shouldn't, and for all that nobody likes to lose football matches, the Black Cats' position in the top half of the table means the effects of their third defeat in five league games should be negligible.
But with next week's crucial FA Cup quarter-final replay with Everton looming large, this is not the time to be losing momentum.
So while second-half goals from Junior Hoilett and Ayegbeni Yakubu mean little in the grand scheme of things, it is hardly the warm-up O'Neill would have chosen ahead of a game that will define Sunderland's season. Make no mistake about it, the Northern Irishman will not want a repeat when QPR visit Wearside this weekend.
The efforts of Hoilett and Yakubu, which settled a desperately poor encounter, could be the difference between relegation and survival for a Blackburn side who are now six points clear of the drop zone.
Steve Kean's men displayed greater desire and enterprise than their opponents, who failed to record a single attempt on target all evening such was the abject nature of their attacking.
To make matters worse, it was not even as though Sunderland could use an under-strength side as an excuse for their failings. David Vaughan replaced Jack Colback, while Sotirios Kyrgiakos made his debut in place of John O'Shea, but O'Neill resisted the temptation to make wholesale changes.
O'Shea's absence with a minor knock robbed Sunderland of arguably their most important defender from the last couple of months and, initially at least, the visitors missed the Irishman's steadying influence.
They were carved open as early as the third minute, with Hoilett, surely a player who is destined for brighter lights than Blackburn this summer, releasing Yakubu into the right-hand side of the penalty area.
Yakubu threaded a low shot past the advancing Simon Mignolet, but Phil Bardsley flung himself backwards to hook the ball off the goalline. It was an intervention every bit as eye-catching as the full-back's long-range cracker at Goodison Park three days earlier.
It was not, however, a moment that was to prove indicative of what was to follow. In terms of attacking incident, Yakubu's strike was as good as the first half got, with the two sides cancelling each other out and lacking the creativity required to unlock their opponents' defence.
Steve Kean opted to pack his midfield with Hoilett playing in the hole behind Yakubu, but a lack of natural width meant the hosts rarely threatened to trouble Sunderland's back four.
Michael Turner was every bit as aerially dominant as he had been at Everton, while Kyrgiakos immediately picked up the pace of the Premier League following a brief hiatus in Germany with Wolfsburg.
Mignolet got down well to block Martin Olsson's tenth-minute strike with his foot, while Grant Hanley should have done better with a glanced header that failed to find the target shortly after. But Blackburn struggled to build up the head of steam that might have been expected of a side battling for their lives at the foot of the table.
If anything though, Sunderland's attacking was even less effective, revolving as it did around the wide running of James McClean and Seb Larsson. Both players found themselves in decent positions at times, but struggled to locate a centre-forward.
As a result, Fraizer Campbell and Nicklas Bendtner were completely starved of service, and when McClean finally found the former on the penalty spot ten minutes before the interval, he was denied by an excellent last-ditch tackle from Hanley.
Consequently, Blackburn goalkeeper Paul Robinson remained untested throughout, with neither Craig Gardner nor the recalled David Vaughan offering anything in terms of attacking threat from a midfield position.
Mignolet was not much busier before the break, but with Rovers beginning the second half much brighter than they had ended the first, the Belgian found himself coming under increased pressure after the interval.
He coped well at first, hurling himself to his right to turn Mauro Formica's 53rd-minute half-volley around the upright, but when he was called into action again six minutes later, he was found wanting.
Morten Gamst Pedersen delivered a long throw from the right, and in attempting to punch clear ahead of Krygiakos, Mignolet only succeeded in delivering the ball to Hoilett. It was still a difficult chance, but the Blackburn attacker displayed impressive composure to dispatch a crisp first-time volley into the net.
The goal was a deserved reward for the hosts' greater second-half urgency, although it was hard not to feel that Sunderland had been the architects of their own downfall such was the uncharacteristic slackness of their defending.
Their first chance of an equaliser came with 19 minutes left, but while McClean looked to have picked out Bendtner with a low cross, the Dane was denied by an excellent sliding challenge from full-back Martin Olsson.
The best opportunity of a leveller came seven minutes later, however, and was spurned in spectacular fashion by substitute Ji Dong-won.
The South Korean had the goal at his mercy as he met McClean's hooked cross no more than four yards out, but somehow contrived to stab a dreadful shot over the target.
Blackburn profited from the error as they doubled their lead with four minutes left. Bradley Orr delivered a hanging cross from the right, and Yakubu powered ahead of his marker to head home.