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Steven Fletcher’s strike proved the difference as Sunderland took all three points from their long trip to Southampton with a 1-0 win.
The Scotland international’s effort three minutes from the end of the first half proved the difference in an even encounter at St Mary’s Stadium.
Only a point separated 16th-place Sunderland and the hosts coming into the match, with Southampton also a place worse off than the north-east side.
Martin O’Neill’s side had lost three of four matches in December but looked dangerous from the outset, with Stephane Sessegnon forcing an exquisite save from former Black Cats goalkeeper Kelvin Davis in the opening minute.
A deflected Rickie Lambert free-kick was the closest Saints came in a first half in which Fletcher swept the opener home late on.
Saints pressed for a leveller throughout the second period but looked devoid of ideas and were unable to find a way past Sunderland, who held on for their second away win of the season.
Fletcher, Adam Johnson and Danny Rose all overcame knocks to start for the hosts, who came close in the opening seconds as Davis superbly denied Sessegnon from 25 yards. John O’Shea nodded over from the resulting corner much to the relief of Southampton, who were jolted into action by the visitirs’ explosive start.
Jason Puncheon had a threatening prod goalwards denied by Carlos Cuellar and, after a dangerous Morgan Schneiderlin free-kick was dealt with, Lambert was inches away from the opener. Craig Gardner brought down Emmanuel Mayuka, making his first Barclays Premier League start, on the edge of the penalty area, and Lambert’s low free-kick was deflected just wide of the far post.
Sebastian Larsson was denied by Davis when Sunderland returned to the attack, before Fletcher directed a Gardner cross just wide and James McClean saw a tame effort from distance saved.
O’Neill’s charges were looking the bigger threat but record signing Gaston Ramirez was proving a thorn in their side. Simon Mignolet did well to deal with an awkward dipping effort from 20 yards before the Uruguay international curled over from distance.
Both sides were playing cautiously in a bid to find the opener, with the defences dealing with any potential threats. First Cuellar denied Lambert as he prepared to break through on goal and then Maya Yoshida did well to stop Fletcher meeting a driven Gardner cross from the right.
Puncheon had a strike blocked by O’Shea as Saints looked to end the half on top, only for Fletcher to break the deadlock on 42 minutes. Johnson’s low cross from the left was played on by Sessegnon for the Scotland international to sweep the ball in.
Referee Howard Webb waved away Mayuka’s penalty appeals as the first half came to a close, with Lambert firing just over 30 seconds after the restart.
Sunderland might have had a second had somebody connected with a drilled Gardner effort before Johnson fired over, leading Adkins to shuffle the pack.
Steve de Ridder, making his first Premier League appearance of the season, and Steven Davis came on for Mayuka and Schneiderlin and De Ridder almost made an immediate impression as he found Jose Fonte with a corner, which the Portuguese defender nodded wide.
Sunderland, though, were frustrating a Saints side lacking inspiration as the rain hammered down. Puncheon was dispossessed as he ran through on goal and Steven Davis had a shot blocked by Jack Colback as the hosts desperately sought a leveller.
Davis then saved an audacious Gardner free-kick from range, before Guly do Prado came on for Puncheon in a final throw of the dice by the hosts.
However, Southampton, who had a late penalty appeal waved away and Do Prado’s stoppage-time shot blocked, could not find an equaliser and the 1,814 travelling left for the long trip home with plenty of Christmas cheer.
Southampton manager Nigel Adkins: “It just didn’t happen for us today. It was uncharacteristically flat from us, and unfortunately we didn’t score any goals.
“I changed it around early doors in the second half because we’d gone behind and we were chasing the game, but unfortunately we’ve not gone and done it.
“We’ve scored a lot of goals this season and today for me, for whatever reason uncharacteristically, it just didn’t happen for us. We didn’t get the flow that we normally do, and we didn’t get as many crosses in which is something that we highlighted before the game.
“We’ll analyse this game. I’m very positive so what we’ve got to do is pick ourselves up very quickly in preparation for the next game which is Boxing Day away at Fulham. I’ve highlighted that you need to win your games at home, especially against teams around us, so it hasn’t gone our way today, but we’ll quickly move on and draw a line under it and get ourselves ready for the next one.”
Sunderland manager Martion O'Neill: "In the last three games, we've been able to win two games against sides beside us at this moment. It has been a tough old season right from the start and I just feel that win today, obviously before Christmas and with the programme we have coming up in the next three games, is massive for us. We got a bit of confidence from that, although we have a fair few games to go.
"The game was very tight as I expected it to be. Southampton are in really good form, particularly here, and they are on a good run at the moment. I think we got a bit of confidence from the second-half performance at Old Trafford [last weekend despite losing 3-1 to Manchester United]. I thought we took it into the game and started brilliantly, with Stephane Sessegnon having a great shot and the goalkeeper making a great save.
"Then the game started to develop into a bit of a pattern, with attacks by Southampton and a couple of counter-attacks by ourselves, so it was important to get the first goal. We got it at a great time in the game and then dealt with a second-half onslaught, which was expected. Southampton tried to break us down and put a few balls into the box, but I thought we dealt with them pretty okay."
"[Steven] Fletcher has been fantastic for us, really fantastic. It looks like Sessegnon has miskicked it, thank God. He should score more goals but I am glad he left it or 'passed' it to Fletcher. His contribution to the club this season has been immense. It is not just that he scores a goal or two for us, but they have been big goals."
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