IS it too soon to call it a relegation battle?
But you can’t see Sunderland getting too much from Norwich City away or Chelsea at home if they continue to play like they did against the Premier League’s bottom and adrift basement side last night.
Martin O’Neill’s men looked shorn of confidence – despite the fulsome backing of a desperately supportive home crowd – as they failed to overcome a side yet to win a single Premier League game this season.
The Black Cats have won their last five games against the Londoners and how they could have done with the three points again last night.
But there were too many errors, too many misplaced passes, on a night in which the team saw their Achilles heel of earlier in the season return – that problem of simply being too static and too uncertain in possession.
One Press box wag posed the question: “are Sunderland the slowest counter-attacking team in the world?”
But what was intended as humour seemed to be exactly on the mark after 90 minutes of Sunderland continually passing the ball backward before attempting to get the ball forward.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with patient build-up of course, if there’s a real purpose, but too often it seemed to be done at the expense of any better ideas; the result of a lack of movement or willing runners ahead.
Despite have being beaten by West Brom at the weekend there were a few positives to take from the game and another decent-sized crowd were in good heart as the game got underway on another rain-sodden night.
Dampened spirits had been raised before kick-off by Lee Cattermole’s amazing recovery from the bad knee injury aggravated in Saturday’s 4-2 defeat against West Brom.
Calf-strain victim John O’Shea was not so lucky and his place was taken by fellow centre-half Matt Kilgallon – one of two changes made by Martin O’Neill from the weekend, with the more attack-minded Craig Gardner preferred in central midfield to Jack Colback.
It took little more than five minutes before the game-plan had to ripped up though – Cattermole injuring his other knee with his first challenge of the game against Samba Diakite and having to be replaced by Colback.
At that stage, the game had got off to a lively start.
In the third minute, Adel Taarabt had put in a cross which former Sunderland striker Djibril Cisse could only nod wastefully at Simon Mignolet from close range.
And seconds later Sunderland had gone straight up the other end – Ryan Nelsen lucky to escape a booking for obstructing Steven Fletcher in full flight before Gardner drove a powerful free-kick narrowly wide from distance.
Sunderland’s confidence levels seemed to drop after the skipper’s departure, though, and the quality of the game dipped in what was to become a pretty poor first half of football.
Forward balls from Sunderland were hopeful rather than precise and QPR were encouraged.
In the 12th minute, they swept forward and Cisse, on the left of goal, curled a low shot towards the far post which Mignolet palmed out for a corner.
Sunderland re-grouped and, on the quarter-hour, put pressure on Rangers after Sessegnon was fouled by Diakite on the right.
Gardner’s inswinging free-kick was dangerous, but the visitors dealt with it and Rangers attacked again – Cisse trying his luck with an eye-catching right-foot effort which flashed wide of Sunderland’s goal.
Sunderland were fitful in attack – Sessegnon half-volleying a shot across the ace of goal from 25 yards in the 20th minute – and the Black Cats’ best hope of a goal seemed to lie in Diakite.
The visiting midfielder once again obliged with a foul on the edge of the area in the 25th minute, this time upending livewire Danny Rose to give Sunderland a well-placed free-kick at goal, but this time Gardner’s shot was straight at the wall.
The half-hour arrived with Sunderland fans getting behind the players and chanting in support of the manager, but the quality of the play from both sides continued to demonstrate exactly why they are where they are in the league.
It was what it was – a game between two sides, one rooted to the bottom of the league and the other in danger of dropping towards them.
Phil Bardsley at least raised spirits with a hit-and-hope shot from Rose’s excellent crossfield pass in the 33rd minute. It was never in danger of threatening the goal, but at least it showed the required intent as Sunderland’s former failings in attack resurfaced.
Stilted in possession and too often standing off when not, they failed to press a hard-working QPR side, who were unlucky not to take the lead in the 38th minute when Taarabt rode a series of challenges and Mignolet was forced into a close-range save from Jamie Mackie at the foot of his left-hand post before Taarabt twice had shots blocked in the six-yard box.
Sunderland reacted well – Gardner playing in Fletcher on the left of goal for the home team’s best chance of the game so far.
His on-target left-foot shot was blocked by Julio Cesar before the resulting corner from the left was glanced across goal.
QPR remained positive though, winning a corner on the stroke of half-time which Nelsen headed at Mignolet and, at the break, the game was very evenly balanced.
The second half began with an immediate change – former England keeper Robert Green replacing injured Cesar in the QPR goal – but no discernible improvement in quality.
The visitors managed the first effort on goal after the resumption, with Esteban Granero heading a left-wing cross straight at Mignolet in the 48th minute.
And although Sunderland initially looked like hitting their stride, they could not muster a shot on goal and it was QPR who made the running in the minutes that followed.
Sunderland’s best passing move of the match saw Gardner centre in the 56th minute, but the flag was up for offside as Fletcher surged in on Green.
QPR countered immediately with a shot from distance from Stephane Mbia which thumped the hoardings behind Mignolet’s goal ominously.
In the 64th minute, Sunderland went as close as they came to scoring all night – Larsson putting in a corner from the left, which Fletcher headed low and goalwards eight yards out only to see Green save it on his goal-line.
Two chances in the game for the six-goal striker, two efforts on target. But he had no luck this time.
Newly-appointed QPR boss Harrry Redknapp made his first substitution in the 66th minute, bringing on Ji-Sung Park, who immediately won a free-kick headed clear inside the six-yard box by Bardsley.
Then it was up to the other end as Colback was fouled to win a free-kick on the very edge of the QPR area in the 69th minute, but Gardner’s free-kick was once again poor and Sunderland fans, who had been loyal all night, voiced their frustrations.
The disappointing Johnson was replaced by James McClean in the 70th minute – a smattering of boos greeting the arrival of the Irishman from fans still angry about Poppygate.
It was the only shouting they were called on to do as the next 10 minutes produced little in the way of goalmouth action and both managers acted to try rousing a twist-in-the-tale finale – O’Neill bringing on Louis Saha for the struggling Gardner; Redknapp turning to Shaun Wright-Phillips for Taarabt.
Though Sunderland had most of the possession in the minutes that followed they could produce nothing to test Green.
It was Mignolet instead who was put on his mettle – Wright-Phillips almost celebrating his 300th Premier League appearance with an 88th-minute goal but being denied by the keeper’s brave block on the edge of his six-yard box.
Sunderland managed, as they did for so much of the game, to get the ball forward but without an end product – Rose wasted one shot high into the stand; Bardsley produced a shocker of a cross and when McClean did produce a decent delivery, Sessegnon missed it altogether with a diving header.
Those moments neatly summed up a night of frustration for everyone concerned at the Stadium of Light.
As the anniversary of Steve Bruce’s sacking approaches, Sunderland fans have been hoping their team would click into gear and kick clear of the relegation zone.
But there have been no home comforts for the Wearsiders – one point taken from the last six at the Stadium of Light.
And there’s the real danger that Sunderland will arrive at the first anniversary of Martin O’Neill taking over the reins of the club in a very similar situation to the one he found them in in the first place.