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Feel-good factor is fast slipping away
EIGHT games and counting. A Premier League season that has provided so much hope for Sunderland supporters following the transformation under Martin O'Neill is in real danger of ending on a dour note.
A failure to leave Craven Cottage with three points yesterday afternoon means they now head in to Sunday's final fixture with Manchester United knowing something special will be required to finish on a high.
Despite Phil Bardsley's stunning strike at Craven Cottage, Sunderland were left still searching for their first victory since March 24 courtesy of the Clint Dempsey and Mousa Dembele's goals either side of the full-back's thunderbolt.
Both Nicklas Bendtner and Fraizer Campbell had late chances to level things up, but Fulham had been the better team for most of the afternoon, which will have given O'Neill plenty to think about ahead of a summer of transition.
O'Neill - whose side have only lost three during their poor run - has been provided with more questions than answers from the final away trip of the season, with the likes of Ji Dong-Won failing to show he could fill Bendtner's boots when he returns to Arsenal.
The Sunderland boss is intent on freshening up the squad he inherited from Steve Bruce last December and, on the evidence of the eight-game winless run suffered by the club, it is required.
With little in the season left to play for other than finishing in the top half of the Premier League, it could quite easily have been an afternoon bereft of excitement and entertainment.
But there was plenty goalmouth incident, even if Sunderland's main source of supply in recent months was only named among the substitutes and had not scored in five matches against Fulham.
Bendtner, who had been carrying a knock in the build up to yesterday, had scored half of Sunderland's previous ten goals, but O'Neill used his niggle as an excuse to test out Ji Dong-Won.
Rather than being impressed with Ji in the early exchanges, though, it was some unnecessary play at the other end which must have frustrated the Sunderland bench.
When Fulham's Mahamadou Diarra turned in the Sunderland half, Lee Cattermole forced him to the ground and conceded a free-kick. There was still plenty to do, but Dempsey cleverly directed his right-foot curler over the wall from 22 yards and beyond the airborne Simon Mignolet's outstretched arms.
Mignolet, recalled ahead of Craig Gordon, who did not even make the bench ahead of a summer when his contract runs out, had already been forced to deny Damien Duff after he had got in behind the visiting defence.
Fulham, hoping to better their previous best 49 points total in the Premier League, attacked with purpose and regularity. Yet, before they added a second, it was Sunderland that found the net and created decent chances.
Mark Schwarzer, the former Middlesbrough goalkeeper, did well to deny Stephane Sessegnon when he should have done better after Cattermole picked him out in plenty of space in the penalty area. Then, 11 minutes before the break, Bardsley delivered from a far more difficult distance.
The Scotland international started the move from just inside the Fulham half with a little pass in front of him to Jack Colback. Colback rolled possession on to Ji, Bardsley continued his run and met a neat lay-off with a rocket drive from 22 yards.
It was a goal of the highest quality, but it was soon forgotten. From the restart, Cattermole was turned too easily by Dembele, who was then afforded too much space to reach the edge of the Sunderland box, where his shot was deflected off Turner and high into Mignolet's top right corner.
From that point on Fulham never really looked like letting slip again. Sessegnon's best work never really caused too many problems, while Ji was unable to enjoy the impact he craved ahead of a summer of recruitment by O'Neill.
Despite scoring one of the most memorable goals of Sunderland's season, Ji had never started a game under the Northern Irishman. The match-winner of the New Year's Day win over Manchester City, however, never really built on his neat lay-off for the equaliser.
Ji occasionally showed some nice touches before his withdrawal on the hour, although his afternoon was summed up when he was dispossessed by Brede Hangeland when a simple pass would have sufficed.
By that time Fulham should have been out of sight. Only the presence of Colback on the line prevented Dempsey from adding a second, while Mignolet had to be alert to deny full-back Stephen Kelly after he got the better of Bardsley.
Fulham's failure to increase their lead should have cost them.
However, even when O'Neill's attacking substitutions created incredible chances, the Sunderland manager was left to reflect on wasteful finishing.
After Bendtner had curled wide after a counter-attack left Fulham exposed, the Danish striker then teed up Campbell with an opportunity to level things with 13 minutes remaining.
Instead Campbell, whose early adrenaline rush after his recovery from serious injury has waned, somehow pulled his right-foot shot wide from eight yards when it looked simpler to score. He was also denied by Schwarzer with seconds left.
With those chances went Sunderland's hopes of a point, while Mignolet made another excellent stop to prevent Fulham's powerful midfielder Diarra adding a late third.
Food for thought for O'Neill ahead of his first summer in charge.