SUNDERLAND’S inability to break down 10-man Norwich City in March was the result which realistically spelt the end for Martin O’Neill.
While O’Neill would have one more game at the helm a fortnight later, Ellis Short had been sufficiently worried by Sunderland’s lack of pressure in the final third against the Canaries to wield the axe.
Perversely, it was a result which arguably kept Sunderland up.
O’Neill was gone, Paolo Di Canio came in and gave the Black Cats such a kick up the backside that it provided the launchpad for Premier League survival.
But after a carbon-copy frustrating draw against the Canaries yesterday, there may be no sparing Sunderland from the drop this time.
That much was riding on this one.
While Sunderland still have games and inviting home fixtures to come, the points are not forthcoming and bottom at Christmas also equals more than a win’s gap from the survival mark.
The results elsewhere in the Premier League meant Sunderland at least reduced the gap with fourth-bottom West Ham to four points.
But that only served to make it more frustrating that the Black Cats could not secure what would have been a pivotal victory with a first Premier League success in six.
Norwich approached their visit to the Stadium of Light with the same strategy as they showed last season – sitting deep and daring Sunderland to break them down.
After netting in their previous 11 home games in all competitions, they chose the worst time to draw a blank for the first time since the opening day of the season against Fulham.
Either through the nerves of the opening stages or persistently resorting to letting fly from outside the area, there was precious little threat on the Premier League’s leakiest defence away from home.
Norwich looked by far the more dangerous side and, had it not been for several excellent saves from Vito Mannone, the result would have been far worse.
Gus Poyet’s side were better in the second half and at least moved the ball around with some tempo and urgency.
But they still lacked quality, ideas and precision in the final third. Anyone making rare runs between the lines was not picked out.
Neither Jozy Altidore nor his second-half replacement Steven Fletcher was able to get into the game and both remain desperate for a goal.
The dismissal of Wes Brown in stoppage time only heightened the sense of frustration around the Stadium of Light.
Ten – perhaps even five – years ago, Brown would have got away with it, but it was one of those scissor tackles that, by the letter of the law, earned an inevitable punishment.
Whether it was red or yellow, Brown had no need to do it. Ricky Van Wolfwinkel was just killing time on the touchline and for an experienced former England international, the 34-year-old let frustration get the better of him.
What’s worse, Brown will miss three pivotal games against Everton, Cardiff and Aston Villa.
After failing to beat Norwich yesterday, Sunderland now need to realistically win two of those three. That is a tall order.
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