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A turning point for Sunderland?

Brede Hangeland's controversial red card may not just have changed the game at Craven Cottage on Sunday, it may well have changed the entire course of Sunderland's season. Before this match, after all, two notionally mid-table sides were at starkly different ends of the spectrum. Fulham were freely scoring and even challenging the big boys. Sunderland were struggling to do much at all as they hovered above the relegation zone.

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Indeed, with Martin O'Neill's side having scored only seven goals scored in their previous 11 games, there was a certain expectation that this would see a duel between two hugely contrasting approaches: Fulham's bright and adventurous optimism against Sunderland's dull and possibly outdated pragmatism. The staleness of O'Neill's outfit could even be seen in his team's scoring stats. Aside from only scoring those seven goals, five of them were from Steven Fletcher and all of them, except Demba Ba's own goal, were left-footed.

However, against Fulham, there was a pleasing variety to Sunderland's strikes. Fletcher again with his left, Carlos Cuellar with his head and Stephane Sessegnon on his right. It was a neat, if simplistic, reflection of what was Sunderland's one truly complete display of the season so far.

Ultimately, Hangeland lunged and O'Neill's side came to life.

"It was just what was needed," the manager said. "A big, big effort by the team. We tried to stretch them, tried to keep a bit of width about ourselves, and we've won the game. The effect [the red card] had on the game, naturally, changed the course of the match. It's a long time playing 11 versus 10, even if Fulham are a fine side. Of course it affects us, but you still have to go and break the team down. We scored some great goals in doing so. We became a bit sloppy, maybe, because we hadn't won for some time, but we ended up with the win. Fletcher was absolutely fantastic, as was Simon Mignolet.

"Sendings off change the dynamic of matches. You saw it in the Tottenham game [against Arsenal]. You have to take advantage of that, and we did that in the second half, though we were never able to put Fulham away."

And, this was the thing. Sunderland were no longer restrained or reserved. They were open and reminiscent of their best last season. The perfect illustration of this was Sessegnon's superb strike from distance. This was confidence and superb execution, both of which have been absent in Sunderland's previous games. It was telling that, in the period of play before the red card, Sessegnon was frequently choosing the wrong option. After it, he was thriving.

"Confidence is a big thing," O'Neill said. "When you see someone like Sess score that type of goal, he's been searching for that confidence all season. We saw signs at Everton, where we created three great chances and scored one, which was never going to be enough. Now we've continued that."

The question is will it be the case for Sunderland as a whole, in the same way as it was for Sessegnon in the game. Will they kick on and rise to last season's league position? The signs were positive, even if it remains open to debate.

What was also the subject of huge debate, though, was the incident which led to this turnaround. Martin Jol was scathing of the red card decision.

"It would be nice if referees had played football themselves, and reffed in the spirit of the game," he said. "I can't complain about the red card, because that will be used as an example for refs to give someone the red card. By the letter of the law, he was right. But Brede slipped with his right foot."

The Fulham manager said Hangeland did apologise though, with the foul on Lee Cattermole startlingly resulting in the first red card of his entire career. In truth, at first glance - which would have been all the referee got - it looked a justified decision, with some replays backing up the decision.

"Yeah, [he apologised] because he is a nice boy. But he confirmed it wasn't intentional but that he slipped," Jol said. "It's not a common thing for him."

One thing that has been common with Jol's side, however, has been a commitment to attacking football. And that didn't change despite the red card. Jol admirably went for it, making a number of positive changes.

"I thought if we did something different it might pay off," Jol said.

Ultimately, it almost did. In an open and entertaining second half, they were only denied by two superb Mignolet saves from Steve Sidwell and Mladen Petric. Sunderland, though, may get the ultimate pay-off themselves: a complete change in their season.


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