Sunderland finally found their attacking stride, exploiting a first-half red card shown to Brede Hangeland to defeat Fulham 3-1 at Craven Cottage.
Martin O'Neill's side had scored just seven league goals prior to kick-off - the worst tally in England's professional leagues - but Hangeland's decision to lunge in on Lee Cattermole after just half an hour afforded them the extra space they needed to get their forwards to function.
Top scorer Steven Fletcher opened the onslaught after 50 minutes with a delightful finish to conclude a rapid break after John Arne Riise had hit the bar. Though substitute Mladen Petric equalisedon 62 minutes, Sunderland responded with two quick goals from Carlos Cuellar and then Stephane Sessegnon, the second of which saw the Benin playmaker unleash a stunning swerving effort that went in off the far post.
The victory takes Sunderland to 15th in the table with 12 points from 11 games, and the relative flood of goals giving O'Neill and his players renewed confidence that they can turn around their desperately poor start to the season.
Sunderland's acute reliance on Fletcher is no secret, but the visitors sought to provide the striker with improved service when removing the out-of-form James McClean and utilising Sebastian Larsson and Adam Johnson in the wide positions. Captain Cattermole also returned from a knee injury to provide bite in midfield and faced Giorgios Karagounis, making his first start for Fulham.
A rather featureless game was given a jolt when Hangeland saw red after 30 minutes. Karagounis played a poor short pass to the defender which allowed Cattermole to pounce. As he tried to take the ball away, Hangeland flew at the Sunderland captain with two feet off the ground and one set of studs showing. Though Fulham's players looked perplexed by Lee Probert's decision, it was perfectly understandable.
Having already been forced into a change when Alexander Kacaniklic sustained an injury and was replaced by Hugo Rodallega, Fulham then made a second substitution, Philippe Senderos coming on for Karagounis to strengthen the defence. The Swiss centre-back was soon exposed when Sessegnon ran in behind him. Luckily for Fulham, his decision to square for Fletcher instead of shoot from a tight angle proved faulty when Aaron Hughes intercepted.
Berbatov had time to drag a decent effort wide from the right of the box before the half was out as a toothless Sunderland continued to struggle to create chances despite their numerical advantage. However, that situation was rectified with three goals in 20 second-half minutes.
Sunderland's first goal actually sprung from a Fulham attack that saw Riise strike the woodwork when his shot looped up off Phil Bardsley and clip the top of the bar. Within 10 seconds Adam Johnson had possession and he picked out Fletcher with a divine, curling 40-yard pass from the left. The striker's first touch was sublime as he controlled the ball in his stride when entering the box and his second was deadly as he poked it to the side of Mark Schwarzer.
Fulham were then dealt another setback when Ruiz went off with an injury to be replaced by Petric but the Croatian quickly made an impact. Fulham were fortunate to see Rodallega's mishit bounce to Duff in the box and his cross was swept home by the striker from eight yards out.
Cuellar caught Petric as he took the shot though and the striker had to hobble off for treatment as his leg was bleeding, leaving Fulham temporarily with nine men. Lacking bodies, they were exposed from a corner after 65 minutes as Cuellar was left free. Though Sidwell spotted the danger late and tried to intervene, the Spaniard was able to direct his header just inside the far post.
Two became three within five minutes. Fulham were caught upfield from their own corner and as Sunderland broke with intent, Johnson squared for Sessegnon 20 yards from goal. He took a touch before unleashing a brilliant swerving effort that clipped the far post before nestling in the back of the net for his first goal in 19 league games.
Simon Mignolet was needed to prevent Steve Sidwell and Petric from pulling a goal back for Fulham as he made two fine saves late on, but Sunderland held to take three points and, just as importantly, three goals away from their trip to the capital.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Simon Mignolet, Sunderland: The visitors' attack shared the credit for Sunderland's three goals so the standout performer was Mignolet, who made a number of important saves to protect his side's lead.
FULHAM: Schwarzer 6, Riether 5, Hughes 6, Hangeland 4, Riise 7, Karagounis 5, Sidwell 5, Duff 7, Ruiz 6, Kacaniklic 6, Berbatov 7. Subs: Rodallega 6, Senderos 5, Petric 8.
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet 8, Bardsley 6, Cuellar 7, O'Shea 5, Rose 6, Cattermole 6, Colback 5, Larsson 6, Sessegnon 7, Johnson 7, Fletcher 7. Subs: McClean 6, Vaughan N/A.
- Sports & Recreation