Portsmouth 2 - 1 Sunderland
After last weekend`s horror show at Stamford Bridge, Steve Bruce`s message to supporters in preparation for today`s F.A. Cup Fourth Round tie against Portsmouth was simple: "If they have got anything about them, the players will respond". At Fratton Park this afternoon, Sunderland`s players were given the opportunity to disperse the growing concerns surrounding the side`s recent lacklustre performances that have seen them slip to just four points above the relegation zone in the league. An away win against the Premier League`s bottom side was, perhaps over-confidently, expected; a defeat unthinkable.
The Sunderland manager made four changes to the side that was pummelled 7-2 by Chelsea in last week`s embarrassing display, with Gordon and Turner returning from injury and suspension, and Zenden and Richardson replacing Malbranque and Reid in midfield. Sadly, the changes made little difference: the performance was - Darren Bent aside - as uninspiring as ever, and the attitude reminiscent of the Ricky Sbragia reign.
However the game started well for The Black Cats, with Darren Bent`s strike on the 15th minute looking to have put Sunderland on their way to their first away win in the competition since 2004. But, in what has become an unwanted habit of the Steve Bruce era, the side resorted to defending from the edge of their own area, after initially looking the livelier team in the game. Sunderland held on to their 1-0 lead until just prior to half time, when a combination of bad marking by Phil Bardsley and awful positioning from Craig Gordon led to Nigerian international John Utaka scoring a rare goal for the South Coast club on the 42nd minute. I know what you`re thinking - typical Sunderland.
The second half saw Bruce`s underachievers gift a place in the 5th round of the cup to Avram Grant`s side. Portsmouth took the lead for the first time on the 57th minute, when yet more schoolboy defending led to Utaka scoring his second of the game, smashing the ball past the inadequate Gordon in goal. From then on Sunderland were on the back foot, and things went from bad to worse when Liverpool target Kenwyne Jones was forced off through injury on the 80th minute. His replacement, Fraizer Campbell, offered nothing.
The final chance of the game fell to Sunderland, with Kevin-Prince Boateng clearing a Sunderland shot off the line in the 90th minute. Bruce later claimed that the ball had in fact crossed the line, but in truth it was irrelevant. Like so many of games against lesser sides, his players failed to turn up. Lorik Cana was anonymous as usual away from home; Kieran Richardson proved his quality, or rather lack of it; and Craig Gordon, who admittedly was just returning from injury, was found to be as incompetent as Marton Fulop in goal. Those criticizing Steve Bruce are right - the manager should be judged - but the blame, in my opinion, lies firmly with the players. They simply don`t have anything about them.
Thanks to Andrew Dipper for this match report, plese feel free to leave your comments after this awful result leaves many Sunderland fans in doubt for the future.