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CHAMPIONSHIP DECEMBER 16, 2017: SUNDERLAND 1 FULHAM 0

Fulham could not find a goal on a frustrating afternoon in Wearside for the Whites, as they went down 1-0 to Sunderland at the Stadium of light.

Josh Maja got the lone goal for the hosts in the 77th minute, and Chris Coleman recorded a victory over his former side to prevent Sunderland from going a year unbeaten at home.

Slaviša Jokanović made one change to the team that won at home against Birmingham City, with Rui Fonte coming in for the injured Neeskens Kebano. Tim Ream and Tomas Kalas continued their partnership at the centre of defence, and Stefan Johansen spearheaded a mobile front three for the third game in a row.

Fulham came out in their black away tops, while Sunderland played in their traditional red-and-white striped home kits on a bitter and clear afternoon in the North East.

Neither set of fans had much to cheer about in the opening five minutes. Lewis Grabban headed a tame first-minute shot straight at Bettinelli and then Fulham responded with a series of corners that ultimately came to nothing.

The Whites soon started to apply more pressure though, and they came so close to opening the scoring in the sixth minute. Ryan Sessegnon found himself free on the left wing and whipped in a tantalising low cross but it was just ahead of the onrushing Johansen.

After a quarter of an hour neither team had truly asserted themselves. Sunderland created more chances, with Darren Gibson standing out in the midfield, pulling the strings and having a few shots himself from just outside the box. They rarely reached Bettinelli, but when one did in the 10th minute, the Fulham keeper was alive to danger and parried well. Throughout most of the opening exchanges Fulham looked like a coiled spring—ready to pounce at any second, but still waiting for the right moment to break free.

That moment almost came in the 29th minute. After a Ream clearance, the ball fell to Cairney who immediately played a sharp diagonal to Johansen, who had drifted out to wing. Fonte, Ojo, and Norwood raced up to join the attack and it was Fonte who ended up chipping the final cross to the back post, where Ojo and Norwood were lining up to head it in. Unfortunately for Fulham, the cross sailed slightly over both their heads and the Black Cats were able to clear. 

Inkeeping with the back and forth nature of first half, it was Sunderland who then fashioned an excellent chance for themselves in the 35th minute. The left back Adam Matthews swung in a dipping cross. Grabban rose to meet it, but his glancing header ended up bouncing just outside Bettinelli’s left-hand post.

Fulham then went on the offensive. Sheyi Ojo slipped in Cairney with a lovely through ball in the 40th minute. Just as the Fulham captain uncorked his foot to shoot, Tyias Browning slid in to get a toe on it, and the attempt ended up ballooning harmlessly over the bar. Two minutes later the ball skidded to Johansen in the box. He adjusted quickly, but Ruiter still was able to get down to save the rapid-fire shot.

It was the best chance for either team in the opening 45 minutes, and both managers trooped off into the tunnel at half time wondering how they could convert a gutsy performance into a winning one.

Sunderland sprang out of the blocks to start the second half, and it was only a world-class save from Bettinelli that prevented them from taking the lead in the 49th minute. James Vaughn boosted himself into the air and headed down powerfully from the three yards out. It looked like a certain goal, and some Sunderland fans were already out of their seats, ready to celebrate the opener. But Bettinelli leapt into action and—at full extension—was able to get a palm to it to tip the shot onto the crossbar. Ream hacked it clear, and the entire Fulham backline could breathe a sigh of relief.

From that point on, the entire game ratcheted up in intensity. Both teams started to well and truly go after it, like two heavyweight boxers who, tired of circling each other, now wanted to land the knockout blow.

Bettinelli had to be alert again in the 50th minute, and he stood tall to save attempts from Vaughan and Grabban in rapid succession. Just as Fulham looked like they were on the ropes, they clawed their way back; Fonte had a long-range shot that was tipped around by the post by Ruiter, and then Johansen, who was through on goal, had the ball tackled away from him at the last moment. The atmosphere in the stands started to shift, and the fans could be forgiven for wondering whether this would be one of those days best remembered for defensive heroics.

As both teams stretched themselves to find the opener, they also left themselves exposed at the back. Sensing this, Ojo received a yellow card in the 60th minute for trying to slow the game down by standing over a free kick. Lynden Gooch followed him into the book two minutes later for a cynical foul in midfield.

Worried that the Sunderland midfielder might receive a second booking, Chris Coleman brought him off in the 67th minute, bringing Didier Ndong on in his place. This triggered a flurry of substitutions from both managers, Jokanović bringing Graham on for Norwood in the 72nd minute and then Coleman making a double swap a minute later—Lewis Grabban making way for Joel Asoro and Josh Maja coming on in place of James Vaughn to make his senior debut.

Just four minutes later, the debutant opened the scoring to send the Stadium of Light into raptures. The ball squeaked out to Maja on the left side of the box and, in the 77th minute, he slotted it low into the far corner past a despairing Bettinelli.

Jokanović responded immediately by bringing Kamara on for Fonte, as he encouraged his side to push for the equalizer.

As a final roll of the dice in the 88th minute, the Head Coach took off Kalas and brought on Luca De La Torre.

Ryan Fredericks received a yellow card in the 90th after a touchline scuffle instigated by the home team’s perceived time wasting. As the final whistle came four minutes later it served as a fitting metaphor for Fulham’s performance: a lot of fight, but not quite enough on the day. 

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