SUNDERLAND are facing up to the very real possibility of Championship football after suffering defeat in their make-or-break encounter against West Ham.
Despite a rousing late effort from the Black Cats to grab a share of the spoils, Gus Poyet’s side could not recover from falling two goals behind and remain four points adrift of safety ahead of daunting games against Spurs, Everton, Manchester City and Chelsea.
Former Newcastle United striker Andy Carroll headed the Hammers into an early lead when he connected from Mark Noble’s corner.
Lee Cattermole should have drawn Sunderland level immediately, but the Black Cats struggled to create clear-cut opportunities and fell two behind early in the second half from another set piece as Mohamed Diame’s effort was deflected into the bottom corner.
Substitute Adam Johnson’s 10th goal of the season halved the deficit, but despite near misses from Connor Wickham and Nacho Scocco, Sunderland couldn’t find an equaliser.
Gus Poyet stuck with the 5-3-2 formation which he trialled for the first time at Liverpool last week, but there were three changes to the starting XI.
Fabio Borini replaced Jozy Altidore up front, Ki Sung-Yueng took the place of Emanuele Giaccherini and Marcos Alonso came in for Andrea Dossena after he was suspended at Anfield.
Hammers boss Sam Allardyce made just one change from last week’s victory over Hull City, with Winston Reid taking the place of the injured James Collins.
Phil Bardsley, becoming Sunderland’s all-time record appearance maker in the Premier League, gave West Ham an early scare in the second minute when he rasped a right-footed half-volley across the face of goal, which swerved just wide of the far post.
But after that bright start, Sunderland fell behind through through a familiar route as they conceded from a set piece for the 14th time this season.
Mark Noble floated a corner in from the left and Andy Carroll got above both Wes Brown and John O’Shea to head home from five yards out.
Sunderland should have levelled within three minutes as Ki’s ball into the area from the left trickled through to Lee Cattermole, to the right of goal, eight yards out.
Cattermole had time to pick his spot, but scuffed a right-footed shot straight at Adrian, before looping the rebound over the bar.
The Hammers went desperately close to doubling their advantage in the 19th minute when Noble pulled the ball back to Matt Taylor on the edge of the area, whose off-balance left-footed shot swerved a couple of inches wide of the far post.
Sunderland should have had a penalty in the 38th minute when Ki’s corner came out to O’Shea on the edge of the area.
O’Shea miscontrolled with his chest, but Kevin Nolan clearly moved the ball away with his arm, just inside the box. Despite having a point-blank view though, referee Howard Webb missed it.
HALF-TIME Sunderland 0 West Ham 1
Within five minutes of the restart, West Ham got a second, again from a set piece.
James Tomkins hoofed a free-kick forwards from the halfway line and Carroll diverted it into the path of Mohamed Diame on the edge of the area.
Diame’s scuffed half-volley deflected off Santiago Vergini and nestled in the bottom corner.
Moments later, Alonso let fly with a half-volley from the edge of the area, but his angled shot drifted wide of the far post.
On the hour mark, West Ham almost added a third when Stewart Downing got in behind Alonso, bore down on goal, but saw his shot towards the far corner brilliantly tipped behind by Vito Mannone.
Sunderland were given a lifeline five minutes later when Wickham backheeled the ball into the path of Craig Gardner and the substitute fed fellow replacement Adam Johnson down the right-hand channel of the area.
Johnson wrapped his foot around the ball and curled it elegantly into the far corner.
The Black Cats went desperately close to grabbing an immediate equaliser in the 68th minute when Ki’s shot from 25 yards was spilled badly by Adrian.
Wickham pounced on the rebound, but the Hammers stopper spread himself well to keep it out.
Moments later, Wickham picked out Borini down the left-hand side of the area, but the Italian’s left-footed shot rustled the side netting.
Substitute Nacho Scocco had a glorious chance to grab a stoppage time leveller, but he sent his free header from seven yards out from Alonso’s cross over the bar.
FULL-TIME Sunderland 1 West Ham 2
SUNDERLAND: Mannone, Bardsley, O’Shea (Gardner 60), Vergini, Brown, Alonso, Cattermole (Johnson 53), Bridcutt, Ki (Scocco 79), Borini, Wickham. Subs not used: Colback, Altidore, Cuellar, Ustari. Booked: Alonso (72), Wickham (75)
WEST HAM: Adrian, Demel, Tomkins, Reid, McCartney (Armero 46), Noble, Nolan (Nocerino 84), Taylor, Downing, Carroll, Diame (Johnson 79). Subs not used: Jaaskelainen, Jarvis, J Cole, C Cole. Booked: Noble (3), Reid (88), Adrian (90)