JOSE FONTE’S header denied Sunderland their first victory of the campaign after being pegged back at the death at Southampton.
The Portugese centre-half’s goal with two minutes to remaining broke Sunderland hearts at St Mary’s after the Black Cats had looked set to be rewarded for a resilient defensive effort.
Emanuele Giaccherini had handed Sunderland a second minute lead with his first goal in English football when he headed home Seb Larsson’s corner.
Southampton piled on the pressure in search of an equaliser, with a combination of Keiren Westwood saves and last-gasp defending denying the Saints.
But just as it looked like Sunderland were heading for three points, Fonte converted James Ward-Prowse’s free-kick.
Paolo Di Canio made two surprise changes to the starting line-up for Sunderland’s first away game of the season.
Centre-half Modibo Diakite was handed his Black Cats debut, with the former Lazio man replacing Valentin Roberge in the starting line-up after the Frenchman’s costly error against Fulham last weekend.
Craig Gardner was also included by Di Canio after the Brummie was suspended against the Cottagers.
Gardner took the place of summer signing Cabral, who dropped to the bench.
Southampton were unchanged from the side which won 1-0 at West Brom on the opening day, although £15million new signing Dani Osvaldo was among the substitutes.
Sunderland grabbed a dream start after taking a third-minute lead when Seb Larsson curled in an inswinging corner from the left and picked out Emanuele Giaccherini, who had completely escaped his marker seven yards out and cushioned a header into Artur Boruc’s left-hand corner.
Southampton thought they had grabbed themselves a sixth minute equaliser when Morgan Schneiderlin threaded a through-ball down the left-hand channel of the area for Jay Rodriguez to run onto.
Rodriguez placed a shot beyond Keiren Westwood into the far bottom corner, only for the referee’s assistant to raise his flag for offside, although replays showed the decision was perilously tight.
Keiren Westwood then denied Rickie Lambert an 18th minute equaliser when the England striker met James Ward-Prowse’s right-wing cross with a powerful downward header.
The ball was heading into Westwood’s bottom right-hand corner, but the Ireland stopper managed to parry it with a full-length dive before gathering at the second attempt.
Moments later, Sunderland almost grabbed a second goal from a corner when Southampton failed to deal with Larsson’s delivery from the left and Artur Boruc had to beat it away off the goal-line.
Lambert had a chance to level five minutes before the break when James Ward-Prowse delivered an inswinging cross from the left.
The Saints frontman got above Ondrej Celustka at the far post, but could only direct his header over the bar.
HALF-TIME Southampton 0 Sunderland 1
Di Canio made a change at the break, with Ji Dong-won replacing Stephane Sessegnon.
There were also two changes for Southampton, with Osvaldo introduced for Morgan Schneiderlin and Nathan Clyne replacing Luke Shaw.
Ji had a chance within two minutes of the re-start when he met Adam Johnson’s long ball forward with a first-time volley from 12 yards out.
But Ji’s effort lacked power and was straight at Boruc.
Southampton were a hair’s breadth away from levelling in the 52nd minute when Lambert cushioned a header into the path of Adam Lallana, just inside the area, to the left of goal.
Lallana whipped in a right-footed half-volley which curled just past the far post.
Moments later, Sunderland made their second substitution with David Vaughan replacing Jack Colback - a change that saw Celustka move to left-back and Gardner slot in at right-back.
Johnson then tried his luck with a right-footed effort from 25 yards which just cleared the bar.
Southampton should have equalised in the 58th minute when Osvaldo delivered an inswinging cross onto the head of Rodriguez, six yards out, only for the former Burnley man to head straight at Westwood.
Seconds later, Sunderland could have doubled their lead when Ji threaded a beautiful ball in behind the Southampton defence for Altidore to run onto.
Altidore hit a first-time left-footed shot, but Boruc had raced out of his goal and spread himself well to block.
Lambert then unleashed a right-footed drive from 20 yards at the other end, but Westwood was equal to it and pushed it behind.
Osvaldo was guilty of ball-watching with nine minutes to go after Lambert got above Gardner to direct a header towards the six-yard box.
As the Italian striker waited for the ball to land on his head from point-blank range, O’Shea intercepted.
But with two minutes to go, Southampton finally did equalise when Jose Fonte rose unchallenged 12 yards out to head Ward-Prowse’s free-kick into the bottom corner.
FULL-TIME Southampton 1 Sunderland 1
SOUTHAMPTON: Boruc, Chambers, Fonte, Lovren, Shaw (Clyne 46), Wanyama, Schneiderlin (Osvaldo 46), Ward-Prowse, Lallana (Ramirez 69), Rodriguez, Lambert. Subs not used: K Davis, S Davis, Cork, Hooiveld. Booked: Ward-Prowse (27), Osvaldo (83)
SUNDERLAND: Westwood, Celustka, O’Shea, Diakite, Colback (Vaughan 54), Johnson, Gardner, Larsson, Giaccherini (Wickham 81), Sessegnon (Ji 46), Altidore. Subs not used: Mannone, Cabral, Moberg-Karlsson, Roberge. Booked: Gardner (33), Larsson (59).
* Don’t miss the best report and reaction, plus Chris Young’s verdict, in the Football Echo – out tomorrow