Saturday, February 7, 2009

Sunderland 2 - 0 Stoke City

Strikers Kenwyne Jones and David Healy got referee Rob Styles out of jail as Sunderland plunged 10-man Stoke deeper into Barclays Premier League relegation trouble with a 2-0 win.

Trinidad and Tobago international Jones struck with a 77th-minute header and substitute Healy added a second in injury time to make the official's astonishing first-half blunder irrelevant.

Styles failed to spot substitute Danny Pugh handling Steed Malbranque's 39th-minute header on the line, denying the Black Cats a penalty and sparing the defender a seemingly inevitable sending-off.

But Ricky Sbragia's men, who were denied a derby victory at Newcastle last weekend by a controversial penalty decision, were not to be denied and, after Matthew Etherington had been sent off for kicking out at Danny Collins, they finally made the pressure tell.

The win will have come as a huge relief to Sbragia, who takes his side to Arsenal and Liverpool in their next two games.

By contrast, the Potters left Wearside having failed to make the most of their let-off when substitute Henri Camara smashed a 66th-minute shot against the crossbar, and facing injury and suspension problems after a black day in the north-east.

A return of four points from their previous two games - a home win over Fulham and the draw at St James' Park - sent Sunderland into the game knowing a fifth league win of the season at the Stadium of Light would ease them well clear of the relegation zone.

In a tight first half, they enjoyed the better chances, but Styles' blunder denied them a lead they probably deserved.

Former Black Cat Thomas Sorensen had earlier beaten away a stinging left-foot drive from Jones, while Danny Collins had headed a driven Kieran Richardson cross over the bar and would see Stephen Kelly clear an injury-time effort off the line.

However, the Potters enjoyed an astonishing reprieve with six minutes of the half remaining.

Andy Reid's chipped cross begged Malbranque to head it home at the far post, and he would have succeeded had Pugh, an 18th-minute replacement for Andy Wilkinson, not instinctively thrown out a hand and blocked his effort.

It was a save of which Sorensen might have been proud, but as the ball cannoned back off Malbranque and out of play, the referee awarded only a goal-kick to an incredulous response from virtually everyone else inside the stadium.

Styles should clearly have awarded a penalty and brandished a red card, and he will not have enjoyed watching television replays of the incident which suggested the ball had crossed the line anyway.

Stoke might argue they were due their stroke of good luck after little else went their way before the break.

Indeed, by the time the clock reached the 30-minute mark, manager Tony Pulis had already been forced to introduce all three of his substitutes with Wilkinson, Ryan Shawcross and Ricardo Fuller all succumbing to injury, the latter after an awkward fall left him with an injured shoulder.

They too had their chances with Richard Cresswell firing an acrobatic overhead kick just wide with 11 minutes gone and Camara forcing Marton Fulop into a decent save within seconds of his introduction.

The snow which started to fall at half-time simply added to the wintry atmosphere which greeted Styles and his assistants as they returned with the home fans among a crowd of 38,350 still smarting.

But with Stoke defending deep and in numbers with great resilience, clear-cut chances were few and far between and the locals were growing increasingly restless.

Abdoulaye Faye just prevented Collins from connecting with a 57th-minute Reid free-kick at the far post, and the pressure was mounting all the time.

Stoke's problems increased substantially seven minutes later when Etherington and Collins tangled off the ball and the midfielder was dismissed for kicking out at the defender, who was booked for his pains.

But the 10 men almost snatched the lead two minutes later when Camara drilled the ball against the crossbar in the midst of a goalmouth scramble following Glenn Whelan's free-kick.

Djibril Cisse and substitute Carlos Edwards sent powerful volleys across goal in quick succession with the Black Cats pushing once again, but the breakthrough finally came with 13 minutes remaining.

Jones climbed high at the back post to meet Reid's cross and send a downward header past Sorensen to ease the tension.

The striker then turned provider at the death for Healy to cement the win and kill off Stoke's resistance.

Sbragia's relief
Sunderland boss Ricky Sbragia admitted his side had got blundering referee Rob Styles off the hook with a late blast against Stoke.
Goals from Kenwyne Jones and substitute David Healy inside the final 13 minutes at the Stadium of Light condemned Stoke to a 2-0 defeat.

However, the Black Cats were fuming not to be leading at the break after Styles and his assistant missed substitute Danny Pugh's handball on the line from Steed Malbranque's 39th-minute header.

Pugh would have conceded a penalty and been sent off had the officials spotted his offence, and although Matthew Etherington was later dismissed for kicking out at Danny Collins, the Wearsiders would have been rightly aggrieved if they had not emerged with all three points.

Asked if he had spoken to the referee about the incident, Sbragia said: "No, I didn't bother. He didn't give it. I am disappointed, but I don't want to get into trouble for saying what I think.

"We just had to get on with it and focus on the game. He didn't give it, but he is off the hook. If it had ended 0-0, we might have complained a little bit more about it.''

Mr Styles' astonishing error came 39 minutes into a tight game after Malbranque met Andy Reid's cross with a header at the far post.

Pugh, an 18th-minute replacement for the injured Andy Wilkinson, clearly handled the ball on the line, but he was spared when the official awarded only a goal-kick.

City boss Tony Pulis said: "There was the incident with Danny Pugh - I don't know whether he chested it or handled it - which we got away with. If it was handball, we got away with it. But the sending off changed the game.''

Sbragia said: "We are getting a little bit more difficult to beat. It's important to beat the teams around us. I know we have got two really difficult away game now, but in general, if we had got six points, I would have been happy, but seven points...and we have got an unbeaten record as well.''

By contrast, the Potters left Wearside with their problems mounting with Etherington facing a ban and Wilkinson, Ryan Shawcross and Ricardo Fuller - who could be out for three months after dislocating his shoulder - all having left the pitch injured inside the opening 30 minutes.

They did so with Pulis pleading with Mr Styles to look again at his decision to send Etherington off a week after Rory Delap incurred a three-match ban for his clash with Manchester City's Shaun Wright-Phillips.

Pulis said: "I am just hoping Rob Styles will have a look at the incident again.

"We had the same situation last week with Delap. I have looked at the incident and the first challenge is a free-kick against Wright-Phillips and the second one is unsporting behaviour when he kicks the ball against Wright-Phillips' legs.

"He gets a straight red and we miss him for three games. The next day, Steven Gerrard does exactly the same and he isn't even spoken to.

"Now, I am not asking for more, I am just asking for the same, and we have a right to have the same as everybody else. I just wanted to be treated the same as everybody else.

"If incidents are going to happen like that, then whether they are wearing a Liverpool shirt or whether they are wearing a Stoke shirt, it should be the same thing, the same thing should happen.''

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