Sunderland 0 Stoke City 0
THERE was a lack of excitement among Sunderland fans when the transfer window closed yesterday and the goalless draw with Stoke City which followed did nothing to improve the mood. A third successive Premier League defeat was avoided, but a failure to find the net and an elusive first league win since mid-November has increased the nerves, and the level of boos, on Wearside. A point gained has taken Sunderland four clear of the relegation zone, but that is a worrying situation few expected after a promising first few months of the Steve Bruce era. The arrival of Alan Hutton and the expected capture of Benjani, whose loan from Manchester City had still not been confirmed last night, should boost the dressing room for the visit from Wigan on Saturday. But a dour night at the Stadium of Light, which only burst into life when Lee Cattermole clashed with Dean Whitehead, has failed to reduce the growing cynicism, after just one win from their last 14 matches in the league. Sunderland had a strong case for a penalty waved away when Darren Bent's turn hit the hand of Robert Huth just after the hour, but neither side deserved to win a very unattractive night's football. In his pre-match notes Bruce referred to the recent run of worrying form as a "dismal couple of months" and there was a need to treat the visit of Stoke and Saturday's home date with Wigan as "two cup finals". In that sense having a match to focus on, on transfer deadline day, must have been difficult to deal with, but he was able to name his strongest team. Cattermole shrugged off a hamstring problem to play with Lorik Cana in the centre of midfield, while Matt Kilgallon made his home debut in the heart of the defence with Michael Turner. It was not just about new arrivals last night, it was also about old flames, with Stoke studded with six former Sunderland players in their squad - and coached by Peter Reid. Danny Collins, the Wearside fans' player of the year was afforded the most welcome reception of the night as he warmed up on the line, but Whitehead was first to make his mark. He was almost apologetic when he was faced with just Craig Gordon to beat in the opening two minutes, with the ex-Sunderland skipper's shot a comfortable gathering for Scotland's number one. On the back of just one win - albeit against non-league Barrow in the FA Cup - in their last 11 matches, there was a lot of nervous tension in the air. That was reflected in much of Sunderland's play, with the normally composed Andy Reid regularly giving possession away cheaply, much to the angst of his manager. He was not the only one and there were very few moments of magic to lift spirits, just a couple of routine saves by Thomas Sorensen from half chances from Kenwyne Jones and Steed Malbranque. It was Whitehead that did his best to spark the game into life shortly before half-time. After Cattermole, who has effectively replaced him in the middle for Sunderland, left him floored with a crunching, but fair, challenge, Whitehead kicked out at his opponent. It could quite easily have earned a red card, instead it brought a yellow from referee Howard Webb, much to the dismay of a volatile home crowd. While that was an interesting battle, there was also persistent man-handling of Jones for Webb to contend with from Stoke's unruffled defenders Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth. Neither gave Jones, who survived the January sales despite interest from Liverpool, an inch. It was a largely uneventful first half which neither team deserved to edge, although Sorensen did have to be alert to deny Reid from a 25-yard free-kick curling towards the top corner. There was slight improvement after the restart, with Stoke the first to go close. Danny Higginbotham kept Glenn Whelan's free-kick in play and Jones did well to thwart a shot from Mamady Sidibe just seconds into the half. Occasionally Sunderland threatened and they would have scored had Higginbotham not timed his run to perfect to block Darren Bent's centre with Lorik Cana lurking. But there was a genuine lack of impetus and creativity, which has often been in evidence at the Stadium of Light, and Stoke were just as likely to find the elusive opener as their hosts. Bruce tried a new approach, replacing the out of sorts Reid and ineffective Malbranque with Bolo Zenden and Friazer Campbell, but there was still little success in the final third. Plenty of crosses arrived in the Stoke penalty area but Sorensen was never tested and it was Gordon that had to be alert to deny Ricardo Fuller when the striker darted into his box late on. Huth also went close with a downward header, leaving Sunderland lucky to earn a point. Bookings: Whitehead (38, retaliation); Fuller (74, retaliation); Mensah (74, retaliation); Wilkinson (84, foul) Referee: Howard Webb (Rotherham) 6 Attendance: 35, 078 Entertainment: * SUNDERLAND (4-4-2): Gordon 6; Mensah 7, Turner 7, Kilgallon 6, McCartney 6; Malbranque 4 (Campbell 69, 5), CATTERMOLE 7 (Henderson 89), Cana 4, Reid 4 (Zenden 69, 5); Jones 5, Bent 4. Subs: Fulop, Bardsley, Da Silva, Meyler. STOKE CITY (4-4-2): Sorensen 6; HUTH 8, Shawcross 7, Faye 5 (Wilkinson 17, 5), Higginbotham 7; Whitehead 6, Whelan 7, Diao 5 (Diao 75), Etherington 5; Tuncay 4 (Fuller 62, 5), Sidibe 4. Subs: Simonsen, Lawrence, Beattie, Collins. MAN OF THE MATCH: Robert Huth - the German turned in a defensive display Boro fans witnessed regularly at the start of the season.
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