Adam Johnson's hat-trick inspired Sunderland to a 4-1 win at fellow relegation contenders Fulham as they took a giant step towards survival.
After coming off the bench to devastating effect in Sunderland's League Cup semi-final first-leg win over Manchester United in midweek, Johnson made his first league start since early December and he produced a match-winning display.
He gave the visitors the lead when he expertly converted a free-kick before he was involved again just before half-time as he assisted Ki Sung-Yueng in scoring Sunderland's second.
The hosts 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 the away side a penalty to put gloss on the scoreline, and Johnson dispatched 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 - Clint Dempsey one of just three players to keep their place as he made his return to 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 the tricky Adel Taarabt forced Vito Mannone into a reflex save from a narrow angle.
The deadlock was finally broken just before the half-hour mark, however. 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.
Things got even worse for Fulham 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 gifted 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 hosts’ need to attack saw the match become increasingly stretched from there 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, the visitors produced a decisive counterattack 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 with ease.
Altidore played an important role again late on as he won a penalty against Senderos, and Johnson confidently scored to complete his hat-trick.
|7||S. Sidwell||37' 52'|
|Coach: R. Meulensteen|
for A. Taarabt 63'
for D. Duff 69'
for C. Dempsey 79'
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