Richards keeps Sunderland in the mire
Manchester City 1 Sunderland 0: Sunderland remain in the thick of the desperate struggle to escape relegation from the Premier League after the bravery of their 10 men went unrewarded as Manchester City.
Micah Richards’ second-half header proved enough, with goalkeeper Marton Fulop preventing City increasing their advantage with a string of fine saves near the end in addition to a Robinho penalty save.
But try as Sunderland might, they were always in trouble once George McCartney had been red carded for a professional foul on Shaun Wright-Phillips after just 15 minutes.
And, just three points above local rivals Newcastle, who occupy that nightmare spot of third bottom, the Black Cats are certainly in need of some good fortune.
The dogfight at the bottom has been so tight for so long, Sunderland have always felt they were in the thick of it.
Nevertheless, they adopted a refreshingly offensive approach, based around the tireless work of Kenwyne Jones, hoping to profit from an injury-hit City side lacking Stephen Ireland and Wayne Bridge.
Just to reinforce the feeling of change, Valeri Bojinov was also included in a Blues starting line-up for the first time since August 2007, the intervening period filled with injury and misery for the Bulgarian, once the youngest foreigner ever to star in Serie A.
Bojinov made a pleasing contribution in an open encounter before the whole dynamic of the game was changed in a mad three-minute spell as the quarter of an hour mark was reached.
Wright-Phillips had definitely got in front of McCartney in the chase to reach Elano’s through ball. There was little doubt either the England winger would have been clean through.
Of more debate, certainly as far as Sunderland were concerned was the strength of the contact that forced Wright-Phillips to pull up as Fulop came to collect.
Referee Steve Tanner felt it was enough to merit a foul. It took assistant Mo Matadar to confirm the need for a red card.
Although Bojinov curled the free-kick over, City were presented with an even better opportunity to exploit their extra man on their next attack when Steed Malbranque upended Micah Richards, who had burst forward on the overlap.
For a player of Robinho’s class, confidence should not be a problem in such situations.
But his trademark shuffle as he strode up, put doubt only in his mind. The shot that followed was weak and Fulop, a conclusive winner of that mind-game battle, made the easiest of saves.
After such a frenzy of incident, the game took a bit of time to draw breath. Yet Sunderland were not content just to sit back and soak up pressure.
If Jones’ admirable industry had been matched by a bit more precision from his team-mates, the Black Cats might have presented their hosts with a stern examination.
Instead, City carried most of the attacking threat even if, aside from Robinho’s penalty, they created nothing better against 10 men than they had done when Wright-Phillips had ended a splendid one touch move by lobbing narrowly wide when Sunderland still had the full compliment on the field.
The onus was clearly on the hosts to attack and Richards decided it was time to take centre stage.
Good enough to become the youngest defender in England history and win 11 caps during Steve McClaren’s ill-fated reign, Richards has lost his way over the past 18 months, so much so that thoughts of going to a World Cup under Fabio Capello seem pretty remote.
But the defender is still only 20 and now slotted back into the right-back position McClaren used to favour, the youngster roared forward with gusto, as if Sunderland were the team to take all his frustration out on.
Opportunities created for Wright-Phillips and Elano were both squandered — the former woefully, the latter agonisingly as a delicate flick rolled wide — so it was just as well Richards had found the net himself, rising to guide Elano’s free-kick over the line just before Robinho could prod home.
It was his first goal for two-and-a-half seasons and only the third of a career that was launched with an ‘F-word reaction’ to a last minute FA Cup equaliser in only his fourth game at Aston Villa in February 2006.
Unfortunately for Richards, his day ended early as he limped off with what appeared to be a hamstring injury, which cast a cloud on an otherwise impressive day.