By David W Bateman
Both sets of supporters will have left yesterday’s clash between Birmingham and Sunderland with a feeling of déjà vu about their teams’ performances.
Although Sunderland went 2-0 up just after half-time, before the break their poor disciplinary record from last season continued when captain Lee Cattermole was sent off.
For Birmingham fans, the familiar feelings from last season were much more welcome, as their side displayed the same battling qualities that gained them 9th place last season by scoring two late goals to level the game, which finished 2-2.
It may not have been an enthralling 90 minutes, but neither was it dull. The quality of the football was average for the most part, and it barely threatened to develop into anything better, but there were talking points and excitement aplenty in the match.
Sunderland started the game well, offering glimpses of the attacking threat they possess, spear-headed by the effective attacking duo of Darren Bent (photo) and Frazier Campbell. This culminated in referee Anthony Taylor awarding them a penalty in the 24th minute, after Campbell was sent into the air by a challenge from Stephen Carr. Although the awarding of a foul was never up for dispute, Birmingham were understandably annoyed by the awarding of a penalty for a challenge that appeared to take place just on the edge of the area.
Darren Bent did nothing to quell their anger when he coolly slotted the penalty in the bottom corner, giving Sunderland a 1-0 lead. Sunderland would have gone into half-time content with their first half display, had Cattermole not been sent off. In the 43rd minute. Post-match Sunderland manager Steve Bruce voiced his dissatisfaction with the referee, criticising him for Cattermole’s first yellow card, which was said to be for kicking the ball away after a foul, although it didn’t appear Cattermole did so. Bruce commented on the referee: “I think it’s his second or third game, he was out of his depth and if you’re going to fast-track people through they have to be exceptional. I don’t want to criticise referees but I think he’s only been refereeing for four years and it looked like it.”
However, despite their protests, in truth neither Bruce nor Cattermole can be unhappy about his sending off. Early in the game Cattermole had jumped for a header, leading with his elbow and causing Birmingham striker Garry O’Connor to require a Terry Butcher circa World Cup 1990 headband. That challenge passed without any cards being awarded, so Cattermole is perhaps lucky to have remained on the park as long as he did. He was given a red card following a nasty-looking challenge into the back of Lee Bowyer’s ankle. This was the 22-year-old Cattermole’s first game as captain, a role he was given after former captain Lorik Cana departed to join Turkish side Galatasaray.
But far from changing the game, the sending off barely altered the run of play in the early part of the second half. A long ball launched over Birmingham’s defence gave Sunderland a 2-0 lead, as Stephen Carr’s horrid day continued with a beautiful looping header over his own keeper in the 56 minute. At least it would have been beautiful, had it been at the other end.
But this is a Birmingham side that simply does not quit. McLeish has built a side notorious for scraping and fighting their way to results that appear to be well beyond their capabilities, and today was no different. They controlled possession in the second half, but were it not for the one-man advantage they could well have been thoroughly beaten.
In the 77th minute, they finally gained a possible lifeline in the match, when Scott Dann rose above new Sunderland signing Nedum Onouha to head home a Sebastian Larsson (photo) cross.
11 minutes later, in the 88th minute, Birmingham once again turned a Larsson cross into the back of the net, with the goal being awarded to Liam Ridgewell, but perhaps coming off a Sunderland defender on the ground last. Larsson can claim much of the credit for Birmingham’s revival, but new 6ft 7inch signing Nikola Zigic was in good form, unsettling the Sunderland central defence of Titus Bramble and John Mensah. Zigic came on as a second half substitute for Garry O’Connor, and proved a real menace to the opposition, creating havoc in their defence frequently.
Alex McLeish will undoubtedly be the happier of the two managers, having watched his side be out-passed in the first half before Cattermole was sent off. But, if his team are to improve on their position in the league last season when they finished 9th, they will need to show more than just the great spirit they possessed today. The performance of Zigic should give them a real boost.
McLeish’s opposite number Steve Bruce has a much tougher task. Although he can take solace from Sunderland looking a good team in the first half, the same issues from last season once again plagued them. Poor discipline will continue to cost Sunderland dearly if it is not dealt with, and they have a worrying habit of losing matches when they look to be in control.
Several positives can be taken in Sunderland’s favour, however. The central defence pairing of Bramble and Mensah make up for their deficiencies with athleticism and power, which will prove effective against teams who don’t have a Zigic-like figure up front. The strike-force of Campbell and Bent looked menacing in the first half, and with Bruce looking to add another striker following the £8million sale of Kenywne Jones to Stoke, it will only get stronger. Kieran Richardson and Steed Malbranque were as effective as ever, spraying some lovely passes and crosses around the field.
However, with the negatives shadowing the positives for Sunderland, it seems likely that Bruce will seek to engineer some deals in the remaining two weeks of the transfer market.
Speculation that he was looking to sign Peter Crouch appears to have ended considering Tottenham’s reluctance to sell cheaply, but Craig Bellamy of Manchester City could well be an option Bruce explores. Bellamy is clearly heading for the exit at City, and the only remaining question is where he will end up. Although there is interest from several other Premier League clubs, Sunderland’s standing of not being a threat to City could well prove decisive, as the Manchester club will likely be reluctant to sell to rivals like Tottenham or Everton.
One of City’s best players last season, Bellamy could be the man to give Sunderland what they are missing- a ruthless killer instinct. Should they get Bellamy or a player of his standing with similar attributes, a top ten place would be well within Sunderland’s grasp this season.