Sunderland 0 Southampton 1
Southampton striker James Beattie plundered his 16th Premiership goal of the season to condemn struggling Sunderland to yet another depressing defeat.
Beattie enhanced his England credentials with a cool 50th-minute finish to take his tally in the north-east during the current campaign to four and leave the Wearside faithful screaming for blood.
The Saints were worthy victors and could have won more comfortably had Thomas Sorensen not produced a fine first-half save to keep out a Fabrice Fernandes free-kick.
For their part nderland, who have now lost seven league games at the Stadium of Light this season, once again created little, although striker Kevin Phillips missed two chances which would once have been regulation to him to increase Howard Wilkinson’s woes.
Injuries have severely hampered Wilkinson since he arrived at the club, and a lack of cash has left him frustrated with the transfer window due to close on Friday.
But on the evidence of this performance, he needs either a radical rethink by the club’s money men or a massive injection of luck if he is to preserve their top flight status.
Sunderland’s extended run in the FA Cup, which saw them score three times at Blackburn on Saturday but still need a replay if they are to make it into the fifth round, may have come as a welcome relief to supporters who have had little to cheer in recent weeks, but the business of securing enough Premiership points to survive is the only priority.
But although neither they nor Wilkinson will be particularly concerned about the way in which they are collected, the fare on offer tonight was particularly unappetising.
They started brightly and there was no shortage of either effort or enterprise, but the lack of creativity which has hurt them so badly over the last two seasons was very much in evidence once again.
Even the contribution of striker Marcus Stewart, employed as a wide midfielder on the right, failed to do the trick as strikers Phillips and Michael Proctor never really got anywhere near Antti Niemi’s goal.
And while the home side enjoyed marginally more possession than the visitors, it was the Saints who created all the presentable chances.
Midfielder Rory Delap, who was only to last 36 minutes in total, served warning with 10 minutes gone when he headed Paul Telfer’s cross just over, but there were to be further opportunities for Gordon Strachan’s men before the break.
The best of them arrived on 37 minutes when Frenchman Fernandes curled a free-kick over the defensive wall and Sorensen managed to get just enough of a touch at full stretch to deflect it on to the upright.
From Telfer’s resulting long throw, Michael Svensson headed into the Dane’s arms, and then two minutes from time, Anders Svensson’s shot was blocked by Phil Babb after the Swede twisted and turned his way into the penalty area.
Beattie wasted a good opportunity within a minute of the restart when he shot high over from Telfer’s right-wing cross, but he did not have to wait long for a chance to make amends.
He timed his run to perfection to run on to Michael Svensson’s long ball with the home defence appealing in vain for an offside flag, and after steadying himself, he rounded Sorensen with ease before shooting home left-footed.
Sunderland rallied to finally put the Saints’ rearguard under some pressure, but it was not until Michael Svensson and Niemi got in each other’s way as they and Phillips chased Kevin Kilbane’s 64th-minute lob into the box, that they threatened to make an impression.
The striker managed to get his toe to the ball first, but with the net unguarded, he could only look on helplessly as his shot drifted literally inches outside the post.
Wilkinson withdrew Babb, Kilbane and Stuart in favour of Ben Clark, Paul Thirlwell and Kevin Kyle in a bid to find a way back into the game, but Beattie could have doubled his tally on 67 minutes when he got his head to a Fernandes corner but could not direct the ball at goal.
But in another pivotal moment two minutes later, Phillips squandered his best chance of the game after beating the offside trap to home in on Niemi, seeing his initial shot blocked by the keeper’s legs and the firing the rebound into the Finn’s arms.
Niemi charged from his line to head a long ball clear 16 minutes from time but only succeeded in finding Arca, but although the Argentinian’s long-range effort beat the keeper, Francis Benali was on hand to clear off the line.
The home side threw what little they had at the visitors in the dying stages, but Strachan’s men were barely troubled as they ran down time to clinch a deserved victory.