IF, as seems likely, Sunderland are relegated this season, they will look back on their failure to beat relegation rivals as arguably the key to their demotion.
Since Sunderland returned to the top flight in 2007, they have rarely had what former boss Paolo Di Canio would describe as a “season without struggle”.
Only in the much-debated Steve Bruce campaign of 2010-11 – when a last-day win over West Ham hoisted the side to a flattering final placing of 10th – have Sunderland fans not had to be slightly twitchy coming into the final stages of the season.
The 13th-place finishes either side of that campaign were respectable, but the 15th, 16th and (last season) 17th-place finishes have been too close for comfort.
In those seasons where Sunderland have struggled the most, one of the keys to them staying up has been an ability to do well against the teams in and around them in the bottom half of the table.
That has not been the case this season and that looks like being undoing.
Wins over Newcastle United, Manchester City and Everton are great for the morale of Black Cats’ supporters but they do not damage their relegation rivals – those wins have been three-pointers, rather than six.
On each occasion – from the opening day of the season against Fulham – when Sunderland have played better in games against the Premier League’s lesser opposition, they have failed to drive home their advantage.
Sunderland were better than Villa at Villa Park, than West Ham United at Upton Park and than Norwich City at the Stadium of Light, yet had to settle for a goalless draw on each occasion.
Worse than the fact that they have not been able to turn dominant performances into wins is the fact that they have handed so many teams near the Premier League trapdoor three free get-out-of-jail points.
After losing to Fulham on the opening day of the season, Sunderland were abject at Crystal Palace shortly afterwards and shot themselves in the foot at Hull City.
Today against Villa it was probably the worst reverse of the lot.
That’s because, after a five-game unbeaten run which had repaired confidence and improved their league standing in relation to the points difference to the teams above them, they had a golden opportunity to move off the bottom.
Aston Villa could hardly have arrived at the Stadium of Light more out of form.
But Sunderland’s usual failing this season – self-inflicted wounds, coupled with a lack of quality in the final third – again proved their undoing.
Put aside the fact that Emanuele Giaccherini was denied a perfectly good goal by a linesman’s flag – Sunderland needed to be better at home with 75 minutes of the game remaining after Agbonlahor’s goal than they were.
Sunderland are not dead and buried yet, though the picture does not look great in the aftermath of Villa’s visit.
But if they are to survive this season, they simply MUST start beating lower-half-of-the-table opposition – every time they don’t, they are doubly damaged.
Sunderland’s next Premier League game is away to Fulham – a game which already has the look of a Last Chance Saloon about it – and they simply cannot afford to be craven at the Cottage.
* Twitter @sunechograeme