Sunderland 1 Middlesbrough 2
Two goals from Cristhian Stuani did much more than merely win the Wear-Tees derby. Quite apart from securing Middlesbrough's first victory since their return to the Premier League, the ruthless Uruguayan offered Ellis Short, Sunderland's owner, an urgent reminder that without substantial investment in the next week or so his club will surely be relegated this season.
This was not the home debut David Moyes had hoped for when he succeeded Sam Allardyce but, if anything, Sunderland's new manager deserve praise for making the best of some extremely – and needlessly – threadbare resources.
Aitor Karanka, his Boro counterpart, is a great believer in rotation and here he decided to refresh his right flank, where Stuani replaced Albert Adomah. It swiftly proved an inspired switch, with the South American giving Boro a 12th-minute lead against the early run of play.
That goal originated with a slapdash concession of possession on the part of Papy Djilobodji. Making his Premier League debut following an €9.25 million switch from Chelsea, the Senegal centre half subsequently saw Stuani collect Álvaro Negredo’s pass around 25 yards out yards out and advance to the edge of the area before sending an unstoppable right foot shot swerving beyond Vito Mannone and on into the top corner.
It was a sublime finish but Djilobodji had compounded his area by neglecting to close the attacking midfielder down. How Moyes must have rued the loss of Younès Kaboul to Watford on Friday, not to mention the likelihood that Lamine Koné, told to stay away from the club after diagnosing himself unable to play due to a mysterious back complaint, will shortly join Everton.
Yet if Boro fans were heartened by the knowledge that their team has never lost a game in which Stuani has scored, they will have been a little unnerved during an opening period during which Sunderland’s Manchester United loanee Adnan Januzaj caused Karanka’s defence – and George Friend in particular – all sorts of problems from his right-wing station. Normally excellent, Friend seemed nonplussed by the Belgian’s fancy footwork.
Karanka’s side had arrived with Víctor Valdés and Jordan Rhodes not even on the bench but, morale bolstered by Stuani’s goal, they began suggesting they might be strong enough to see Sunderland off, after all.
Although Jermain Defoe did direct the ball into the back of the net that effort was rightly disallowed for being well offside and there was a growing sense the tide was turning against Moyes’s team.
The Scot must have been increasingly worried by the way Donald Love, his young right back, was struggling to cope with Stewart Downing’s advances, when John O’Shea sustained an injury-ending afternoon.
He was replaced by Steven Pienaar, newly signed on a one-year contract, with Jack Rodwell dropping back into central defence. Unfortunately for Rodwell, he was soon duped by Negredo in the preamble to Stuani's second goal just before the break.
It began with an excellent reverse pass from Adam Forshaw who, having played a one-two with Gastón Ramírez, supplied Negredo. The Spaniard delighted in selling Rodwell a dummy before laying off the ball for the unattended Stuani to dispatch a cushioned, close range, shot into the roof of the net.
Despite Januzaj's best efforts – although he let himself down when it came to end product – Brad Guzan, Boro's goalkeeper had not had much to do. Part of the problem was Sunderland's penchant for persistently launching attacking long balls that Antonio Barragan and Ben Gibson, the visiting centre halves, revelled in gobbling up.
Indeed as Sunderland were loudly booed off at the interval the front cover of Legion of Light, the club magazine, appeared particularly unfortunate. Adorned by a large picture of Koné it posed the question: “Is David The Moyesiah?”
No messiah could expect to succeed with a central midfield or central defence as weak as Sunderland’s are at present and, abandoning all pretence of fielding proper ones, Moyes replaced Paddy McNair with Jeremain Lens, a winger, for the second half.
The aim was presumably to try to damage Boro with pace but the big question centred on why Wahbi Khazri remained on the bench. The Tunisia winger proved a key reason why Sunderland avoided relegation last spring.
Without Khazri Sunderland flattered to deceive as Boro retreated into their defensive shells and ceded them plenty of possession. Young Lynden Gooch saw shot blocked by Emilio Nsue, a brilliant piece of defending on Gibson’s part denied Defoe a goal and Guzan was finally forced into action, saving Patrick van Aanholt’s stinging drive well but it all smacked as too little, too late against a highly efficient backline
Eventually though Boro found themselves retreating far too deep and suddenly seemed unable to escape their own penalty area, let alone their own half. With 19 minutes left, Guzan failed to hold a low shot from an extremely lively Duncan Watmore, and Van Aanholt – who had started the move – extended a boot and diverted the loose ball into the back of the net. But Boro held on for the points.