SUNDERLAND extended their winless run to seven games after falling victim to a quick-fire sucker punch at Fulham.
Phil Bardsley’s second of the season had drawn Sunderland level in an entertaining tussle at Craven Cottage after Clint Dempsey’s free-kick handed the hosts the lead.
But within 40 seconds of Bardsley’s stunning strike, Moussa Dembele had restored Fulham’s lead and it proved sufficient for Martin Jol’s men to cement their top 10 place and leave Sunderland sweating over their own top half hopes.
Sunderland could and should have sealed a point in the second half, with substitutes Nicklas Bendtner and Fraizer Campbell both spurning inviting opportunities.
Fulham took the lead in the 12th minute after Lee Cattermole charged into Mahamadou Diarra 25 yards out, with Cottagers’ top scorer Dempsey stepping up to the free-kick.
Dempsey curled the ball over the wall and into the top left-hand corner of Simon Mignolet’s goal, the Belgian getting a touch to it but not sufficiently to keep it out.
Sunderland should have levelled within four minutes when Cattermole fed Stephane Sessegnon to the right of goal, with only Mark Schwarzer to beat.
Sessegnon opted to check back inside rather than hitting it first-time and when he got his shot away, Schwarzer was able to block at his near post.
Sunderland did find an equalier in the 34th minute and it was a beauty – Jack Colback feeding the ball into Ji Dong-won, who laid it off first-time into the path of the onrushing Bardsley.
The full-back struck it sweetly with his right foot, the ball swerving away from Schwarzer and into the far corner.
But Fulham regained the lead within 40 seconds after Moussa Dembele turned Cattermole on halfway and charged towards the Sunderland area as Matt Kilgallon backed off.
Dembele let fly from 20 yards and his shot deflected off Michael Turner and out of the reach of Mignolet into the top corner.
Sunderland had Colback to thank for denying Fulham the chance to go further ahead in the 52nd minute after Hangeland cushioned Danny Murphy’s corner into the path of Dempsey, 15 yards out.
Dempsey placed the ball towards the top corner, only for Colback to head clear on the goal-line.
Mignolet then came to Sunderland’s rescue in the 72nd minute when he managed to block Dembele’s effort behind with an outstretched right leg after he was picked out by Dempsey.
Sunderland should have restored parity four minutes later when Craig Gardner lofted the ball forward on to the head of substitute Nicklas Bendtner, who cushioned it into the path of fellow replacement Fraizer Campbell.
The England international was in space, to the right of goal 10 yards out, but screwed his effort wide of the far post.
Dembele could have sealed Fulham’s victory with two minutes to go when he jinked beyond Cattermole and Turner down the right flank before firing in a shot which was deflected over the top by Mignolet.
FULHAM: Schwarzer, Kelly, Riise, Hangeland, Pogrebnyak (Frei 81), Murphy (Baird 85), Duff, Hughes, Diarra, Dempsey, Diarra. Subs not used: Stockdale, Kasami, Senderos, Kacaniklic, Trotta.
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet, O’Shea, Turner, Kilgallon (Campbell 71), Bardsley, Gardner, Cattermole Colback, McClean, Sessegnon, Ji (Bendtner 60). Subs not used: Westwood, Bridge, Meyler, Bramble, Elmohamady
Don’t miss tomorrow’s Sportmail for a full match report, photos and more reaction.