LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 16: Nicklas Bendtner of Arsenal looks on from the bench ahead of the UEFA Champions League play-off first leg match between Arsenal and Udinese at the Emirates Stadium on August 16, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Steve Bruce took his Sunderland squad to Bolton a man under pressure, but if it was to be his last stand, he was a man determined not to go down without a fight. In what has become an all too rare display of attacking intent, the beleaguered Sunderland manager named an attacking starting line-up including the returning Nicklas Bendtner, Stephane Sessegnon, and a first Sunderland start for Connor Wickham.
In midfield, Lee Cattermole and Ahmed Elmohamady dropped out of the team that lost to Arsenal, as Jack Colback and David Vaughan formed a small yet tenacious central pairing. There would no instant recall for Phil Bardsley, however. The Salford Scot had to be content with a spot on the bench following his recent disciplinary problems. Bolton were unchanged from the team that won at Wigan last week.
Considering the early stages of games have not been kind of late, that the opening 10 minutes of this game was scrappy and devoid of any real quality from either side was welcomed like an old friend with free beer. It wasn't in any hurry to liven up, either. Nicklas Bendtner tested the Bolton 'keeper with a turn and shot on the edge of the area. Bolton responded with Darren Pratley sliding the ball wide from a similar distance following good work out wide from David N'Gog.
Meanwhile, the comedy was being provided by Bolton's on-loan Manchester City man Dedryck Boyata. With Sunderland in good possession high in the hosts' half, the Belgian defender, as a result of an awkward fall moments earlier or sniper in the crowd with an itchy trigger-finger, threw himself to the ground without a soul near him. Inexplicably, referee Mike Jones, he of beach ball fame, stopped the game to allow treatment. Boyata was back on his feet and fresh as a penguin's feathers just seconds later to help clear the danger.
In terms of any actual football, very little of note continued to happen. As would be expected from a midfield paring of Colback and Vaughan, Sunderland were neat in possession. And Wickham's presence up front with Bendtner did at least occupy the opposing centre halves. It did mean that Sessegnon was exiled out to the wing, though, and his influence was very much diminished from what we have seen in previous weeks. He did come close to opening the scoring, however, but his falling volley from the corner of the 6-yard box flew hopeless high and wide.
As the clock ticked down towards half time, there was just enough time for captain John O'Shea to flash a near-post header wide from a typically curvaceous Seb Larsson free kick. The 5000 Sunderland fans at the other end of the ground believed it in, but no such luck and, despite Sunderland shading it, the first half produced nothing but deadlock.
If Bolton were slow to start playing the first half, they certainly seemed to be in a rush after the break. Just about immediately from kick off they attacked. A sweeping pass from left to right found Chris Eagles in space, before the ball was once again worked over to the left for Martin Petrov to test Mignolet with tame low shot.
But Sunderland reasserted their authority, and started to once again dominate the midfield area. The concerted spell of pressure finaly culminated in a big chance as Sessegnon worked himself some space in the box before pulling it back for a marauding Kieran Richardson. The chance was so juicy he took it with his right foot, twice, but twice Bolton threw themselves in the path of the ball and the game remained scoreless.
With the game finally beginning to open up and becoming a little stretched, a quick piece of David Vaughan industry almost provided the break-through. Connor Wickham, who was absolutely justifying his reputation as a no-nonsense traditional English centre forward, won a free kick just inside the Bolton half. With the full back still on the ground, Vaughan slipped the ball into the vacant space for Sessegnon, who made himself a yard in the box before forcing the keeper into a save. And Vaughan then himself curled an effort that looked destined to nestle in the top corner of the Bolton net before Paul Robinson cleared.
As the game began to wind down to a conclusion, the visitors began to push for a winner. Wickham was a constant monolithic menace in the Bolton box, and saw his cross aimed for Bendtner come back off the bar.
But they got their reward as the game entered the last 10 minutes. Sunderland forced a corner from the right, their tenth of the afternoon. It was swung over by Larsson, and despite being met with a Bolton head, the ball was kept alive in the box before falling to Stephane Sessegnon who turned and rifled it into the bottom corner with the kind of quality that belied the scrappyness with which it arrived at his feet.
The question now was whether there was enough confidence in the Sunderland team to hang on to the lead. And almost immediately cracks appeared as the visitors, who had been so imperious in possession for much of the half, began to dally on the ball. Michael Turner gifted Bolton possession with a misplaced pass out of defence, and the ball found its way to Darren Pratley who forced a magnificent save from Simon Mignolet. Seconds later, John O'Shea had to produce a towering header whilst surrounded by white shirts at the back post to clear the ball as the goal gaped.
But as Bolton pressed for the equaliser, the Black Cats plotted the killer blow with the kind of ruthlessness that has been lacking for far too long. Sessegnon, who had been deployed more centrally since the break, received the ball and headed for goal. With the Trotters' defence backing off, Nicklas Bendtner held his run, making the extra numbers count, and cooly slotted the ball inside the near post to round off a superb second half performance.
Team (Ratings in brackets)
Starting XI: Mignolet (7); O'Shea (7), Richardson (7), Brown (7), Turner (7); Vaughan (7), Larsson (7), Colback (8), Wickham (8), Bendtner (7), Sessegnon (8)
Subs Used: Bardsley (6)
Man Of The Match: Stephane Sessegnon - For the second week in a row the Benin International takes the Roker Report spoils. He struggled with the system in the first half, but after being granted more freedom after the break he was the match-winner, bagging the crucial opening goal himself and laying the second on a plate for Bendtner. Colback's craft and Wickham's industry also made them genuine contenders.
So there we have it. Bruce chanced his arm, took the bull by the horns, and trusted the attacking talent he has at his disposal to win him the game - and was rewarded for it.
He has been known to ignore exciting tactical discoveries in the past and revert to type, but from this afternoon's display you would hope that even he can't ignore the effectiveness of granting Sessegnon the freedom to supply two strikers in what was essentially a 3-man attack.
It really was a superbly professional and authoritative away performance from Sunderland, so whilst we are happy to dish out criticism where it is warranted, today nothing but blanket praise is the order of the day. Simply put - they got it right.