Sunderland earn point, have work to do
On the opening game of last season, Sunderland played fairly well against the limited challenge of Fulham and lost.
A year later, an unconvincing, pedestrian performance at the Hawthorns looked destined to concede all three points to a West Bromwich Albion side some observers expect to struggle. Seb Larsson saved a point with a late equaliser that was as well taken as was its buildup from Jordi Gomez and Patrick van Aanholt.
One disappointment for Gus Poyet was the quiet, almost anonymous debut of his big signing from Manchester City, Jack Rodwell. Gomez, a free transfer from Wigan Athletic, was much more effective when he replaced him in the second half.
Sunderland's start could not have been more promising, Lee Cattermole scoring a rare goal when he picked up a loose clearance to send an outstanding shot into Ben Foster's top corner in the sixth minute.
Instead of gaining confidence from the early lead, Sunderland showed that dismal old habits die hard, defending far too deep and allowing Albion to run at them. They ran especially at Valentin Roberge, Poyet's questionable choice in defence -- Roberge had a nightmare.
Victor Anichebe had beaten the French defender at will. It was little surprise that shortly before halftime, he was able to draw Roberge into an unwise tackle.
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It looked a harsh penalty award by Neil Swarbrick, but Roberge had only himself to blame, and Saido Berahino scored from the spot with ease. The Frenchman fared no better at the other end, earlier missing a straightforward heading chance from Larsson's cross.
Sunderland's play improved after the interval and Steven Fletcher even managed to head home Cattermole's cross, but from an offside position.
Despite this brighter approach, Berahino's second goal threatened to deliver this modest encounter's three points to Albion. Vito Mannone could only parry a shot from Graham Dorrans, and WBA's recruit from Sunderland Craig Gardner was on hand to deliver a precise cross that the Burundi-born England youth international smartly converted.
It is unlikely to have escaped Poyet's attention that Mannone was stranded for the cross. Costel Pantilimon, the 6-foot-8 Romanian, watching from the bench, might have stopped the Dorrans shot more safely -- he surely would have reached Gardner's cross.
On came Jozy Altidore to add more thrust to a Sunderland attack that had started with both Fletcher and Connor Wickham. But Larsson, a hero of last season's late escape from relegation, had the last word.
He drilled home Gomez's superb pass with the same cool technique shown when he won Sunderland three priceless points at Old Trafford in May.
A draw at the Hawthorns, where Sunderland have twice been beaten soundly in their past four visits, was not a bad start to the season.
But it was an unnecessarily hard-won point and, with Manchester United anxious to bounce back from their wretched opening match against Swansea, Poyet needs to be concerned as well as relieved.
There were new faces among his starting XI and on his bench, but it was difficult to identify significant improvement on the team after last season's close shave with relegation.
Rodwell should gain in match fitness soon enough to be able to put this meek debut quickly behind him. Poyet has the resources, and may secure more, to tweak his midfield and attacking options.
He must reconsider his defensive choices, however. With Mannone uncomfortable more than once, there is a case for allowing Pantilimon to show what he can do in goal, perhaps not as early as next Sunday's Stadium of Light clash with Louis van Gaal's United, but before the season is much older. Santiago Vergini or Billy Jones, once fit, are certainly preferable to Roberge on the evidence of this game.
Paolo Di Canio's start last season went from bad to worse, with a solitary point from eight games. The last of those seven defeats -- 3-0 at West Brom -- proved to be his final game in charge. Poyet is a more reassuring leader but has work to do before his new-look squad will look capable of securing mid-table comfort.