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A hat-trick from Adam Johnson inspired Sunderland to a 4-1 win at rivals Fulham as they took a crucial step towards Barclays Premier League survival.
After coming off the bench to devastating effect in Sunderland's Capital One Cup semi-final first-leg win over Manchester United in midweek, Johnson made his first league start since early December and produced a match-winning display.
The England international gave Sunderland the lead when he expertly converted a free-kick, and he was involved again just before half-time as he assisted Ki Sung-Yueng in scoring Sunderland's second. Fulham were resurgent at the start of the second period and quickly pulled one back through Steve Sidwell, but Johnson grabbed his second of the match with 21 minutes left to effectively wrap up the three points.
Second-half substitute Jozy Altidore's quick feet in the final stages earned Sunderland a penalty to put gloss on the scoreline, and Johnson dispatched the spot-kick to ensure he claimed the matchball, and Sunderland took a big step towards safety.
Fulham head coach Rene Meulensteen made eight changes from the FA Cup draw at Norwich City, with Clint Dempsey one of only three players to keep their place as he made his return to Barclays Premier League football.
As well as Johnson, Jack Colback also returned as Gus Poyet's only other alteration.
After a quiet opening 20 minutes, both sides went close as Steven Fletcher headed just over the crossbar following a well-worked free-kick for Sunderland, while Adel Taarabt forced Vito Mannone into a reflex save from a narrow angle.
The deadlock was broken just before the half-hour mark. Johnson won himself a free-kick just outside the Fulham area and the winger curled it into the top corner, despite David Stockdale getting both hands to the ball.
Then, four minutes before the break, Johnson cut a free-kick back towards the penalty spot and Ki's low, first-time strike found the back of the net via a deflection off Philippe Senderos.
Fulham were handed a lifeline seven minutes into the second half when Damien Duff’s inswinging corner found its way through to the unmarked Sidwell, who glanced a header home.
The goal stretched the contest and Sunderland almost capitalised when Fabio Borini hit a drive wide from the edge of the area, before Stockdale clawed Lee Cattermole's 30-yard effort away.
With Fulham throwing players forward, Sunderland produced a decisive counter attack to restore their two-goal lead in the 69th minute. Ki combined with substitute Altidore before slipping a delicate throughball into the area for Johnson, and he slotted past Stockdale.
Altidore played an important role again late on as he won a penalty against Senderos, and Johnson confidently stepped up to complete his hat-trick.
Fulham head coach Rene Meulensteen: “They put a free-kick away and then it got worse when we conceded a second from another free-kick.
“It gave us a mountain to climb in a game we know we needed to win against a team around us in the table.
"Their third was the defining moment. We were attacking, they broke on the counter and credit to Sunderland, they took the chance. Then at 4-1, you sit here very disillusioned.
“We know we have a challenge on our hands. We didn’t think for one moment we’d turned a corner. It’s so tight down there – if we’d won we could have gone up to 13th. That’s why you have to take it game by game and address the situation and pick up points whenever you can. In general, the performances have improved. But the quality into the final third and conceding is a problem.”
Sunderland manager Gus Poyet: "It was an outstanding performance.
"If we can retain that level then we can stay up. We needed something special and got it today.
"The lads were superb, you do not score four goals away from home many times in your life.
"Adam Johnson was exceptional with his passing, his creativity and everything he did today. He needs the ball and the chance to pass it."
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