Bruce hails spirit after Welbeck floors Bolton
Sunderland 1 Bolton Wanderers 0
Bolton supporters bedecked the Stadium of Light with a "White Army" banner. In truth, they were more a battalion but the hardy band of visiting supporters -- including one topless man and seven wearing Santa Claus costumes -- who had bravely traversed the snowy Pennines did not deserve to see their side lose.
Thanks to Danny Welbeck's latest goal, Sunderland just about merited the victory which lifted them to sixth and sustains Steve Bruce's dream of hosting "fantastic European nights" in this corner of north-east England next season. Not that Owen Coyle agreed. "We didn't deserve to lose," said Bolton's manager. "Steve's spent a lot of money on some very good players and Sunderland are always a threat, but we had numerous chances and were comfortable. We just couldn't equalise; we feel aggrieved."
Football remains full of little mysteries and foremost among them is Coyle's insistence on wearing shorts even on days when the temperature stays sub-zero. It was so cold here that ground staff re-gritted the areas in front of the dugouts at half-time but, still, Bolton's manager stubbornly refrained from pulling on a pair of tracksuit bottoms.
Perhaps by way of thermostatic compensation Coyle was boiling up with rage as his defence struggled to second-guess the attacking intentions of Sunderland's three strikers, Asamoah Gyan, Darren Bent and Welbeck, as they alternated between 4-3-3 and 4-4-2.
Admittedly, there was one wonderful cameo in which Gyan controlled a Lee Cattermole pass with his head, swivelled 180 degrees and dodged Zat Knight before seeing his shot deflected. Fortunately for Knight and company, Bruce's attacking trio frequently ended up confusing each other, at times looking distinctly unsure as to where they should be. So much so that Bolton often appeared the more cohesive team.
Then just as it seemed that three really would not go into two and the lack of a proper left winger would cost Bruce's side dear, Sunderland scored.
Despite being permitted to operate primarily through the middle while Gyan often worked the right flank, Bent, as he has been for several weeks now, looked thoroughly out of sorts.
Suddenly, though, he gave his marker the slip and connected with an awkwardly dropping Jordan Henderson cross. Having controlled the ball, Bent then unleashed a left-footed half-volley that Jussi Jaaskelainen did well to parry. Alert to the rebound, Welbeck dived in to score with a fine stooping header.
It was the Manchester United loanee's fifth goal in his last six appearances. "Danny Welbeck is an outstanding young player," said Coyle.
"His loan is a win-win situation for him, Sunderland and Manchester United."
But for a brilliant point-blank save from Craig Gordon, Bolton would have equalised just before half-time. When Gary Cahill headed down at the far post, Knight attempted to toe the ball beyond the Scotland 'keeper but was thwarted by a superlative reflex save, Gordon somehow clawing the effort to safety from beneath the bar. "Jim Montgomery in the 1973 FA Cup final came to mind," said Bruce. "It's certainly save of the season. It'll take some beating."
Coyle's players felt Cattermole, already booked for a foul on Stuart Holden, should have been sent off following a nasty off-the-ball lunge on Johan Elmander. Perhaps aware the first yellow card had been ludicrously harsh, Chris Foy opted to give Sunderland's captain the benefit of the doubt, prompting Bruce and Coyle to indulge in some expletive-laden repartee. It was possibly the most explosive exchange of a second half in which Welbeck struck a post, Bolo Zenden headed wide, Nedum Onuoha blocked Cahill's shot, Ivan Klasnic shot wastefully wide and Anton Ferdinand was defensively outstanding for Sunderland.
"It wasn't a classic but we showed our resilience," acknowledged Bruce before praising Welbeck. "Danny's been terrific," he said. "He's a fantastic talent."