Sunderland attack stalls at QPR
Is Joey Barton, that seasoned master of self-promotion, really up to life back in the Premier League? That was my question to a Queens Park Rangers supporter before Sunderland visited for a game that turned out to have endless energy but only limited quality.
His response -- that Barton, in summary, is "a good captain provided he plays the game simply rather than attempting 40-yard Hollywood passes" -- seemed a reasonable appraisal after Barton made the difference, and helped to make the winner, in this end-to-end scrap.
For all the pantomime abuse directed at him from Sunderland fans, unable to forget his Newcastle United connections, the QPR midfielder was on his best behaviour.
The scowling insults were in full flow, but ignored without so much as a pair of shrugged shoulders each time he stepped forward to take corners in front of the large visiting contingent.
From the last of these, shortly before halftime, Sunderland made a mess of marking Leroy Fer, whose header across goal gave Charlie Austin ample time to rasp home his drive past Sunderland goalkeeper Vito Mannone. Fer had earlier hit the bar with a long-range effort that had Mannone well-beaten. The goal that Fer and Barton set up for Austin was probably just reward for a 10-minute burst of QPR pressure.
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So after two good Premier draws and an ultimately emphatic win in the Capital One Cup at Birmingham City, Gus Poyet's Sunderland were brought tumbling back to earth against a team that may well struggle all season; they had plenty of possession but rarely looked capable of scoring.
Of four strikes on target in a brighter second half fightback, only one -- a powerful shot from Emanuele Giaccherini -- caused QPR goalkeeper Robert Green noticeable effort. A draw might, in the end, have been fair but they certainly did not deserve to come from behind to win, and Sunderland will suffer repeatedly in the games to come if as little gumption and imagination is shown.
Sunderland did not lose because Robert Madley's refereeing was deeply inconsistent, but because they had no one capable of forcing genuine openings in the face of a Ranger defence effectively marshalled by Rio Ferdinand.
Particularly worrying for Poyet was that promising attacks not only broke down short of the penalty area but led, through cheaply surrendered possession, to several counter-attacks. By the end I was more in fear of a second Rangers goal than hopeful of an equaliser. The quality of corners, especially when compared with those of Barton, was one problem; the flatness of open play was another.
Jack Rodwell again lasted only about an hour before being withdrawn and, like at West Brom on opening day, did little before his withdrawal to display his undoubted quality in midfield. He will improve the more he plays, but progress is so far slow.
Each of Poyet's main strikers -- Steven Fletcher, Connor Wickham and Jozy Altidore -- had a bite at this game.
Fletcher was wretched throughout and is now a shadow of the player who looked so sharp in his first season at Sunderland. Wickham offered bluster and a few clever touches, but only occasional menace when switched from the wing to lead the attack on Fletcher's substitution. Altidore was thrown on to try his luck in the closing stages, arrived to boisterous encouragement -- "if Jozy scores, we're on the pitch" -- and looked livelier in flashes than either of the others.
Defeat for Sunderland ends their unbeaten start to the season, leaving the club in a much less comfortable position than was the case after the spirited draw at home to Manchester United. And Burnley's similar achievement in Saturday's early game showed that holding United is no longer anything too remarkable.
Poyet, who expressed disappointment afterwards at having lost to a poorly defended set piece, will suddenly be feeling sorely in the need of a Premier win. But he faces a hard home game, against one of his old clubs, Tottenham Hotspur, after the break for internationals. Whatever tricks may still be up his sleeve in the dying phase of the transfer window, he still has a lot of thinking to do.