IN a game which provided no end of talking points, surely the most important one for Sunderland arrived in the 83rd minute when Steven Fletcher stretched and scored.
At the time, it threatened to be a consolation goal rather than the platform from which Sunderland would grab a share of the spoils.
But fellow substitute Jack Colback went on to score in “Aguero time”, giving the Black Cats a priceless point – damaging, as it did in the process, opposition likely to be in the relegation shake-up come May.
It was no more priceless though than Fletcher rediscovering his goal-scoring form.
For if Sunderland really are to stay up this season they will need to score more often than they currently do – just 15 in 19 games to date – and Fletcher can solve that problem if he finds his formerly prolific touch.
The £12million man’s goal on Saturday night was his first in 10 games in an injury and illness-disrupted season; his first since October.
More relevantly, and at the same time worryingly, it was also the first goal Sunderland had scored in open play away from home since August when – who else but Fletcher – scored in a defeat to Crystal Palace.
He surely is the key to winning games, with Jozy Altidore going from bad to worse at the moment and Fabio Borini improving but still lightweight.
On Saturday, Fletcher’s goal looked as though it would once again come in another loss away from home to struggling rivals that Sunderland needed to take points from.
They were lucky, when he pulled the goal back, that they were still in the game at all.
Cardiff could easily have been out of sight on the back of an opening half-hour in which the home side shook off the disappointment of losing popular manager Malky Mackay to storm into visitors who simply weren’t at the races.
New centre-back pairing Valentin Roberge and Modibo Diakite had been outstanding at Everton on Boxing Day in the absence of Wes Brown and John O’Shea, but against Cardiff they were woeful
It was Roberge who was dispossessed while dwelling on the ball by ex-Black Cat Fraizer Campbell in the sixth minute – the striker immediately teeing up Jordon Mutch, whose powerful strike from the right deflected off Diakite and past the blameless Vito Mannone.
But Sunderland could easily have been behind before then – livewire Campbell threatening to reach a long ball forward before Mannone in the very first minute; centre-back Steven Caulker heading a right-wing cross from Peter Whittingham wide at the far post in the third .
Sunderland did not improve after going behind either – Mannone tipped over Kim Bo-Kyung’s effort from range in the 13th minute, Lee Cattermole, celebrated his 100th Sunderland appearance by picking up a needless booking in the 18th, Caulker headed straight at Mannone in the 21st when he should have doubled the lead.
The one-way traffic continued: Whittingham tested Mannone in the 24th minute with a powerful shot from a narrow angle which the keeper beat out and then, three minutes later, Campbell missed the target with a header when well placed.
Further attempts followed – Craig Noone and Declan John’s left-footed shots, from outside the area, were blocked – as the half-hour came up with Cardiff in complete control.
In the dug-out, Sunderland head coach Gus Poyet managed to look both baffled and bemused at his side’s failure to shine, indeed its failure to do some of the most basic things right – like bringing the ball under control or marking an opponent.
In the fullness of time, this was to be a game of two halves – Sunderland finishing with 21 attempts on goal compared to Cardiff’s 16.
But the most remarkable thing about that statistic was that the Black Cats did not muster a single effort on target until the 31st minute when Sunderland’s man-of-the-match, Ki Sung-Yueng, forced a fine save out of keeper David Marshall with a shot from the left.
The keeper palmed the ball across goal only for Jozy Altidore, four yards out, to scuff an attempted shot wide of an open goal.
That about summed Sunderland up at that stage, but they got their act together in the closing stages of the half.
Borini forced a fine save out of Marshall in the 35th minute when he curled a shot towards the bottom left-hand corner of the keeper’s goal and an even finer one from the Scot in the 41st minute when the on-loan Liverpool man arrived late in the area to strike a first-time volley which looked goal all the way until a brilliant block from the diving keeper.
Those moments from Borini would have given Sunderland hope for a better second half, but the Italian didn’t emerge after the break having taken ill in the dressing room.
Thankfully, Fletcher provided a more than adequate replacement and his ability to hold the ball up and lay it off accurately were to have a big influence in the game turning the Black Cats’ way.
Before that, though, they were to suffer the setback of falling two goals behind just before the hour.
Mutch, scorer of Cardiff’s first goal, turned provider, flummoxing three opponents to square, from the left of the area, for Campbell, who side-footed home from five yards, with the AWOL Roberge and Andrea Dossena looking askance at each other.
Sunderland could have crumbled, probably should have crumbled, but Poyet has added steel and self-belief to the side and instead they took the game to Cardiff for the remainder of the game.
They were helped by substitutions – good ones from Sunderland, with Jack Colback coming on improve the midfield; bad ones from Cardiff, with caretaker manager David Kerslake taking off three of his most effective players in the last 20 minutes.
A training ground routine almost came off in the 62nd minute when Seb Larsson pulled back a right-wing corner and Cattermole, on the edge of the 18-yard box, struck a first-time volley which curled no more than a couple of inches over the crossbar.
Ki produced a snapshot from range which Marshall held confidently and, in the 67th minute, Emanuele Giaccherini side-footed a powerful, low shot which the keeper blocked out for a corner, before the struggling Altidore also managed a shot on target.
Sunderland kept hammering away, occasionally leaving themselves vulnerable at the back, but they got their reward in the 83rd minute when Ki’s fine, crossfield ball was expertly taken down by Giaccherini on the left and a diagonal ball crashed into the danger area, where Fletcher got beyond defender Ben Turner, stretched, and toe-poked the ball back across Marshall just inside the six-yard box.
It was the hallmark of a goalscorer – a goalscorer Sunderland so badly need in the second half of the season.
Poyet’s men powered on, looking for an equaliser, as Cardiff, so free-flowing earlier on, defended desperately.
Colback had a shot blocked and drove another just wide and, in between those efforts, fellow sub Craig Gardner slashed one effort wastefully high.
Fletcher brought down a difficult centre well before hitting an under-powered volley at Marshall on the stroke of the 90th minute and when Giaccherini chipped a curling effort towards the far post three minutes into stoppage time and the ball flashed wide, it looked to be all over.
But referee Chris Foy had added five minutes on, and that was just enough for Sunderland to snatch an equaliser in front of the away fans.
Ki cut in from the left, dragging players towards him, before passing inside where Roberge lurked, turning the ball back towards Colbackm whose first-time shot deflected wickedly off Caulker, down into the turf before looping in past the hapless Marshall.
There were only 11 seconds left on the clock when the ball entered the goal. There was barely time for a restart.
But there was time for ecstatic celebrations from the visiting team and its dug-out as the ball crossed the line and time, too, to enjoy it with the red and white army at the final whistle.
“Things can only get better, can only get better…” thundered joyous Sunderland fans for long minutes in unison at the end of the second game in a row.
And on the evidence of these two games, who is to say they won’t be right?
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