SUNDERLAND’S long list of daunting home fixtures finally came to a close at the weekend – the Spurs game ending a gauntlet of challenges which began in September with Arsenal and continued with the visits of Liverpool, Manchester United, Newcastle United, Manchester City and Chelsea.
It was always going to be an uphill challenge making headway against those visitors – something which former head coach Paolo Di Canio recognised before a ball was even kicked this season.
But the question that needs to be asked now, is have Sunderland left themselves too much to do in the remainder of the campaign?
Approaching mid-December, they find themselves still in single figures in terms of points on the board.
And, which is a concern, two of the names on that challenging list – Newcastle and Manchester City – have been the only providers of victories so far this season.
That means the Black Cats have continually slipped up against lesser sides on their travels and that is Gus Poyet’s major worry as he looks ahead to the “easier” home fixtures coming up.
“Somehow, there’s always something wrong with us,” he noted, after a defeat which once again showcased his side’s tendency to shoot itself in the foot from any angle, regardless of the opposition.
For the second game in a row, Sunderland took the lead against quality opponents only to surrender it too quickly.
No team in the Premier League has lost more points from winning positions than the Wearsiders – and once again they had only themselves to blame.
A free-kick conceded unnecessarily was poorly defended by Sunderland as Spurs pulled level shortly before the break.
And the visitors took the lead shortly after the resumption thanks to John O’Shea’s own goal – the fifth Sunderland have conceded in nine games under Poyet.
No wonder the Uruguayan already has one eye on the January transfer window – the realisation now dawning upon him that this squad is simply not good enough to survive games against Premier League opposition without making a rick or two.
The Wearsiders actually made a half-decent start to Saturday’s game after Poyet made four changes to the side which narrowly lost to Chelsea, deciding to field two strikers in his pursuit of points.
Steven Fletcher came in to partner Jozy Altidore, while Seb Larsson and Adam Johnson returned to midfield and Ondrej Celustka to defence; Fabio Borini, Emanuele Giaccherini, Craig Gardner and Andrea Dossena all making way.
The Black Cats have threatened to bore opponents into submission in recent weeks with their patient, passing football and this game started slowly too, with neither side threatening goal until Paulinho’s 12th-minute shot from distance cleared Vito Mannone’s crossbar by a yard.
A couple of minutes later, Lewis Holtby went closer with a snapshot from range.
But Spurs were being restricted to long-range efforts and Sunderland had comfortably the better chances in the opening half-hour.
Fletcher drove a left-foot shot across the face of goal from Phil Bardsley’s defence-splitting pass on the quarter-hour and then the busy Altidore played in Jack Colback, who also should have hit the target instead of lifting a shot wide of Hugo Lloris’s goal from the left.
Sunderland might have pressured more, but Fletcher was having a game to forget.
And with Nacer Chadli sending a free header wide in the 32nd minute and Michael Dawson and Jermain Defoe having half-shouts for penalty appeals, it was almost against the run of play that Sunderland took the lead in the 36th minute.
The goal came from the classiest passing move of the game, with the ball being swept all around the pitch before it reached Altidore, who fed Celustka on the right-wing.
The Czech’s dipping centre should have been dealt with better by Lloris, but all he could do was punch it across to the feet of Johnson, who took one touch to control and another to rifle a rising right-foot shot across the Frenchman and into the top corner of his goal.
It was a great goal and it should have been the platform on which Sunderland built – especially given Spurs, with just one league win in their previous five, had not won any of the previous three games in which they had conceded the first goal.
But instead Colback fouled Aaron Lennon to offer Spurs a cheap free-kick on the right wing just seven minutes later.
Kyle Walker hoisted the set-piece to the far post where Chadli beat Celustka to nod the ball back across the six-yard box and, with Bardsley and O’Shea flat-footed, Paulinho nipped in to equalise.
It was a bad time to concede and worse was to follow five minutes into the second half when Spurs went ahead.
Once again it was a sloppy goal – Mousa Dembele gaining ground down the left, rounding Colback and then putting a ball across the six-yard box which O’Shea diverted just inside the near post with his trailing leg as he looked to block.
Just before half-time, Celustka had threatened to put his team in front with a viciously driven shot from distance which Lloris parried and Sunderland needed more of the same in the second, but they faded horribly.
Only a brilliant Johnson interception and then a perfectly-timed Wes Brown tackle stopped Holtby when both times the Spurs midfielder was favourite to score. But the visitors continued to turn the screw.
Just before the hour, Defoe struck Mannone’s right-hand post and, in the 80th minute, the ex-England striker hit the left-hand one.
In between, he managed to drag a great goalscoring chance across goal from the right after being put clean through.
On the touchline stood an exasperated Poyet, who made substitutions immediately after Defoe’s miss, but all Sunderland could show for their second-half efforts was a weak shot on target from Altidore, a glanced Fletcher header wide and substitute Fabio Borini’s shot straight at Lloris.
And yet, for all Spurs’ superiority and Sunderland’s labouring, the Black Cats could easily have had an equaliser had referee Lee Mason awarded a handball for substitute Sandro’s clear handball to Seb Larsson’s left-wing corner in the 75th minute.
It was blatant.
But, not for the first time this season, Sunderland were the victims of inept officiating.
The poor decision only rubbed salt into the wounds – it is, after all, not against the rules to be outgunned, outclassed even, yet nick a point.
But that’s not the way Sunderland’s season is unfolding.
Now they have everything to do when they face fellow strugglers West Ham at Upton Park this weekend.
They cannot afford to slip up to London opposition for the third game in a row.
Sunderland had given their all against Chelsea in midweek and maybe those exertions took their toll on Saturday because the Black Cats worked hard but continually looked like being just a fraction off Spurs’ pace, especially as the game wore on.
A failure to choose or execute the right final ball time and again though, did not help their cause.
And maybe the fatigue of a deeply depressing season so far is beginning to erode confidence in the camp.
Sunderland have had the fewest shots on target this season in the Premier League, most goals conceded, most players sent off, most own goals conceded ... and so it goes on.
Sooner or later those sort of statistics must start biting into the self-belief of a squad which has undergone so much change and upheaval in the last six months.
Indeed, with one or two players, it is beginning to look as though it already has.
That’s why Poyet has to be true to his word when he said after the Spurs game that he wanted to draw a line under Sunderland’s trials so far in this difficult first third of the season.
The Black Cats’ season must start here.
Otherwise, Sunderland’s campaign is in danger of being over by Christmas.