Flickerings of young promise despite Sunderland guaranteeing bottom spot with capital pain
Craven Cottage crackled with anticipation.
Here, Fulham could pile the pressure on Cardiff City and take a major step towards Premier League promotion.
The London rain created a surface that looked perfect for the division’s best footballing side to make a statement.
It turned out not to be so easy. They ended last night’s game in complete control, but, for much of the first half, Sunderland battled well, looking like the team that threatened for a month or so to make a serious fist of the relegation fight.
The difference was Fulham’s supreme ball retention and the absolutely relentless attacking force that was Ryan Fredericks on the hosts’ right-hand side.
With visiting left-back Bryan Oviedo injured, it was always an area to exploit and Fulham boss Slavisa Jokanovic poured all his side’s attacking efforts down that flank.
That Sunderland would crack seemed inevitable and, in the end, as it so often has been, it was a set-piece that proved their undoing as Aleksandar Mitrovic towered above Paddy McNair at the back post and headed home a floated free-kick to clinch a 2-1 Fulham win.
It was a victory that the hosts, who levelled right on half-time with Lucas Piazon’s goal, ultimately deserved – after a pedestrian opening they upped the tempo and barely gave the Black Cats a second to breathe in the final half hour.
Certainly in possession, Sunderland were second-best. Their midfield battled with real intensity, but, technically, Fulham looked a touch above.
Sunderland’s travelling support, strong in numbers and voice once again, sung defiantly throughout and they will have been encouraged at least by the spirit shown by a young core of players in the team.
This defeat means that Sunderland are guaranteed to finish bottom of the league and that tells the story of a shocking season of underperformance.
Most had hopes of a mid-table finish, perhaps with a dash for the play-offs.
Ellis Short’s absentee ownership, shocking recruitment and the continued struggles of established players put paid to that.
Despite the woes Chris Coleman has endured since taking charge in November, he has not given up hope of a Sunderland revival next season and there were flickers of that promise here.
Ethan Robson replaced Lee Cattermole at the base of the midfield and brought more athleticism, as well as an efficiency on the ball.
Paddy McNair and George Honeyman did not have their best games, but they battled bravely and Joel Asoro scored a quite simply outstanding individual goal, taking an Ashley Fletcher header in his stride, taking two opponents out of the game before firing home the opening goal.
Some of the senior members of the team struggled against their opposite numbers and, should Coleman stay in situ, many will be offloaded.
His main concern is whether he can keep hold of his younger talents or whether, as happened with Jordan Pickford, they will be shipped out to prevent heavy financial losses.
It has been said many times in recent weeks, but new ownership, to provide clarity and direction, is essential.
Though they were not good enough to compete with this excellent Fulham outfit last night, the youngsters did not fold and will be better for their experiences in this wretched season.
If they can stay, Sunderland’s support will feel next season can be an enjoyable one.
Should they leave, it will be a hammer blow to all and have alarm bells ringing.
Though they took their time to show their full talents, last night showed that Fulham are a club moving emphatically in the right direction.
They may not yet secure automatic promotion, but, if they keep playing like this, the top tier will not be far away.
It has taken them a long time to reach this point, four years in the Championship wilderness, searching for a direction.
Sunderland’s demise has gone far deeper and far further and will take a long time to recover from.
A manager desperate to stay, some talented youngsters and an ever-loyal support is at least somewhere to stay.
All it needs is for Ellis Short or a new owner to see it.