Premier League round-up
With none of the top four in Premier League action this weekend the focus of attention switched to the battle to stay in the top flight as Sunderland, Stoke City and Portsmouth were the jackpot winners in Saturday's relegation lottery. Ricky Sbragia has been feeling the heat of late following Sunderland's miserable two-point return from their last seven games, but a 1-0 victory at home to fellow strugglers Hull City will have the Black Cats faithful purring again. At Fratton Park veteran front-man Nwankwo Kanu came off the substitutes' bench to earn Paul Hart's Portsmouth a 1-0 win over Bolton that pulls them further clear of the drop zone. Stoke are up to the heady heights of 11th and all but assured of playing Premier League football next term, after Liam Lawrence's second half goal was enough to secure a 1-0 win over Blackburn that leaves Sam Allardyce's Rovers perilously close to the bottom three. At The Riverside, Middlesbrough boss Gareth Southgate was left to rue a goalless stalemate with Fulham, while Aston Villa's winless run was extended to eight games after they threw away a lead at home to West Ham to draw 1-1. Djibril Cisse was Sunderland's saviour in the North East as his first half header was enough to see off Hull; a result that sees the Black Cats leapfrog the Tigers in table. On his return to the Stadium of Light it was Kevin Kilbane that drew the first save of note in what was a nervy and close-fought affair. The veteran wide man drifted in from the left to get his head on a delivery from the opposite flank, but Craig Gordon was equal to it in repelling the Irishman's effort. Kilbane's profligacy in front of goal was punished on the stroke of half-time when Cisse scored his 11th goal of the season with a stooping header after Danny Collins had flicked Andy Reid's left wing delivery into his path. Kenwyne Jones thought he had doubled Sunderland's advantage shortly after the restart when he headed home from no more than a yard but his effort was rightly chalked off by a lineman's flag. Stoke's hosting of Blackburn at the Britannia was never likely to be one for the purists and so it turned out as chances were very much at a premium. There can be no doubting the commitment on display from both sets of players though and, with 15 minutes left on the clock, Lawrence had a partisan home faithful off their feet when he took James Beattie's flick into his path, turned Gael Givet and steered past Paul Robinson, who may feel disappointed with his effort to keep the ball out. Winless in seven games prior to West Ham's visit to the Midlands, Aston Villa were desperate for a victory against Gianfranco Zola's Hammers. A change in kit seemed to signal a change in fortune as Villa, sporting an all-white number after a perceived clash with West Ham's away strip, took an 11th minute lead when Emile Heskey bundled home from close range James Milner's right wing delivery. Heskey went close to making it two for Villa before the break as he intercepted a short Mark Noble back pass only for his shot to come back off the post. West Ham are made of sterner stuff these days though and with just five minutes left on the clock, grabbed an equaliser when Diego Tristan cleverly steered home substitute Kieron Dyer's off-target shot with a deft header. On the South Coast, two Portsmouth substitutes combined to earn the home side a massive victory at home to Bolton. Kanu was on hand to stab home Nadir Belhadj's in-swinging corner from close range with just 12 minutes left on the clock. Gary Megson is unlikely to be pleased with his side's defending. Glen Johnson endured a frustrating first half as three times he went close to giving Portsmouth the lead. The England full-back, revelling in a midfield role, brought two solid stops from Wanderers goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen following buccaneering forward surges before he struck the far post with an angled drive. Bolton's first half response was restricted to a solitary Johan Elmander effort on the counter-attack, as the goal-shy Swede drew a save from David James. After the break the game looked to be heading for a stalemate until forgotten man Kanu stepped from the bench to steer his side to within a whisper of safety. Middlesbrough started brightly in their must-win game at home to Fulham but failed to conjure chances, let alone goals. Fulham front-man Andy Johnson went the closest to breaking the deadlock when his first half drive from range beat Brad Jones but not the width of the post.
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