SUNDERLAND’S home campaign ended with a whimper rather than a bang – Paolo Di Canio unable to conjure from his side the sort of explosive display characteristic of the Italian himself in his own playing days.
Instead, there was a flatness and uncertainty about the Black Cats’ performance against the Saints, reminiscent of their game against 10-man Norwich in the dispiriting, dying days of previous manager Martin O’Neill’s reign.
And that means Sunderland go into the final week of the season knowing favours from Arsenal and Aston Villa, in their games against third-bottom Wigan, will be far more likely than a win for the Black Cats away to Champions League-chasing Spurs, in preserving their Premier League skins.
A point at Tottenham, though, will ensure they cannot finish below both Wigan and Villa.
Yesterday’s frustrating display had more to do with the lack of spark from the absent Steven Fletcher, Stephane Sessegnon, Lee Cattermole and Craig Gardner, than it had to do with any lack of desire from the players selected.
But it also exposed the worrying lack of strength in depth in the squad Di Canio has inherited.
And if there was one positive Sunderland could take from the game, it was that they could easily have lost it, had it not been for a series of fine saves from Simon Mignolet.
The lap of appreciation taken after the final whistle would have verged on the embarrassing were it not for the fact that a few thousand Sunderland supporters can still generate impressive noise at the Stadium of Light.
Most fans, as was clear to any onlooker, had already voted with their feet – a silent statement of disappointment aimed at a team which has disappointed virtually all season.
High up in the West Stand, owner Ellis Short stared pensively at the squad – surely knowing that if this team is still in the Premier League next season, big changes, expensive changes, need to be made.
Below him, and bringing up the rear of the applauding squad was Di Canio, head bowed, knowing that he had done his best but his best had not been good enough.
The head coach had mitigation – Sunderland being deprived for one reason or another of their three leading goalscorers – Fletcher, Sessegnon and Gardner having contributed 28 of the Black Cats’ 41 goals this season.
But, for the second game in a row, his team selection was called into question.
Both managers made only one change to the sides which played their previous matches – Southampton replacing injured midfielder Guly Do Prado with Morgan Schneiderlin.
Sunderland were forced to shuffled because of the suspended Gardner and Di Canio’s decision was to bring Phil Bardsley back into the side at right-back, and move Jack Colback on to the left wing.
That meant persisting with James McClean on the right, where he had been so uncomfortable in the first half against Stoke.
It also meant that Adam Johnson – man-of-the-match against Stoke when moved to the right wing – was again asked to play the Stephane Sessegnon role just behind main striker Danny Graham.
That the system didn’t work for Sunderland became obvious in the opening stages, with Johnson well-marshalled and the entirely left-footed McClean looking just as awkward again on his “wrong” flank.
Certainly, Sunderland didn’t start well and the Saints capitalised, winning a couple of corners and a free-kick inside the opening 10 minutes.
They failed to prosper from any of the set-pieces, but they were encouraged and, before the quarter-hour, Di Canio, realising the problem, had switched McClean back the left wing.
By then though, Southampton had momentum and Sunderland needed to work hard to get it back.
They made their first inroads in the 18th minute when only a superbly-timed Nathaniel Clyne tackle denied Danny Rose as he sprinted towards the 18-yard box.
Next it was Clyne’s turn to go on a fine run, and Sunderland needed a good Carlos Cuellar block to cut out the right-back’s cross.
Colback did well not to give away a penalty as lively full-back Luke Shaw surged into the Sunderland box in the 27th minute.
Instead the Tynesider sparking the first meaningful Sunderland attack, which ended when Alfred N’Diaye’s long-range shot was charged down .
Southampton, meanwhile, looked to be getting closer.
Leading scorer Rickie Lambert attempted a long-range effort which he scuffed, but he at least forced Mignolet into a save – the first shot on target in an error-strewn game not coming until the 28th minute.
The visitors should have taken the lead three minutes later when Jay Rodriguez had a header blocked and a follow-up shot deflected. And the Saints pressed again, with Colback was forced to head out under pressure.
Sunderland looked like a side conscious of their limitations.
They were second to every ball and all Di Canio could hope for was to get his players in at half-time to re-organise.
Belatedly, they sparked.
In the 40th minute, the inventive Colback won a corner and Johnson’s centre from the right was flicked on by O’Shea, but no one was there to attack at the back post.
From a follow-up corner on the left, Larsson hit the ball to the back post and this time O’Shea headed down to Johnson, but the ex-Manchester City man couldn’t react quickly enough with his shot and the ball barely rolled to the feet of keeper Artur Boruc.
The next attack was much more potent and it went Southampton’s way. Steven Davis drilled a diagonal ball to Lambert, who brought it down well under pressure on the right and hit a shot without power which Mignolet – expecting a pile-driver – was almost deceived by, the low ball almost sneaking beneath his boot.
On the stroke of half-time, a hopeful Larsson shot was charged down and Southampton almost scored a killer blow on the counter-attack, with a determined run but Bardsley and Mignolet combining to rescue the situation.
Somehow, Sunderland had got away with a limp and lacklustre first half.
They needed to be much better in the second and Di Canio’s change at the break – striker Connor Wickham on for the unimpressive McClean – threatened to do the trick.
With more round pegs in round holes, Sunderland looked more comfortable but they still didn’t create.
And in the 50th minute Mignolet punched clear a goal-bound header from Rodriguez from Shaw’s right-wing corner.
Sunderland responded with their best move of the match so far and Colback was at the centre of it high on the left wing, setting up Rose for a centre across the six-yard box which Danny Graham should have side-footed home.
It was a critical moment – a great chance for the Tyneside-born striker to score his first goal for Sunderland since joining from Swansea in January.
Instead, the striker produced an air shot and the chance went begging.
Far more convincing at the other end was £6million former Burnley striker Rodriguez, who again managed a header on target, from a right-wing corner, which Mignolet had to be alert to.
Colback continued to do well, winning Sunderland a corner on the hour, and then sparking another attack as the home team finally started to get the crowd going.
It looked as though Sunderland would never to be able to genuinely threat, but that all changed in the 68th minute when they took a lead which lifted the shackles from both fans and players.
It was a patient move from Sunderland, the ball being played around the Southampton area before a clearing header reached Johnson, who laid it off to Bardsley on the right.
The defender took a stride before unleashing a fierce shot from a narrow angle which was diverted into the far corner by Jos Hooiveld’s thigh.
In the minutes that followed, Sunderland were on top, but the hosts’ joy lasted less than 10 minutes.
From a long ball forward, the otherwise excellent O’Shea found himself on the wrong side of his opponent, and then also failed to make a clearance as Southampton advanced.
The Saints worked the ball well before Rodriguez found substitute James Ward-Prowse on the left and he centred for fellow sub Jason Puncheon, whose initial shot was blocked by Mignolet on the line before being squeezed home by the striker.
The equaliser took all the energy out of the Stadium of Light and, in the closing stages, Southampton had every bit as much chance of scoring the next goal as Sunderland.
In fact, Southampton could easily have got their noses in front in the 87th minute when a ball over the top saw Lambert hit a goal-bound shot from the right which Mignolet palmed away one-handed.
That confirmed a point which means Wigan now have to win both their remaining games and Sunderland lose their last one in order for the Black Cats to go down.
It is an unlikely scenario. Very unlikely.
But not impossible.
The sad thing is that it should never have come to this for Sunderland, either under O’Neill or Di Canio.
And the fans, who turned up yesterday to ensure that even in this lame-duck season the club has averaged home Premier League attendances of more than 40,000, deserved better than this.
So much better than this.