SUNDERLAND fluffed the chance to move out of the relegation zone after they could only manage a scrappy stalemate with fellow strugglers Crystal Palace.
In a pivotal encounter in the battle to avoid the drop, the Black Cats could not find a way through the Palace back-line, albeit they moved up a place in the table to third bottom after Cardiff’s defeat at Everton.
Sunderland were the better side for long periods, but lacked the necessary quality in the final third, particularly in a one-sided first half.
Half-time substitute Jozy Altidore drew a smart save out of Palace stopper Julian Speroni early in the second half, but it wasn’t until the final 10 minutes when Sunderland mustered another meaningful chance.
Fabio Borini twice went close within seconds when he first fired against the crossbar and then shot just over the top, before Kagisho Dikgacoi almost nicked it for Palace at the death.
Gus Poyet made seven changes from the side which lost at Hull City in the FA Cup quarter finals, with Vito Mannone, Marcos Alonso, Ki Sung-Yueng and Adam Johnson all returning after being rested at the KC Stadium.
Wes Brown shook off a knock to take the place of Santiago Vergini, while Liam Bridcutt was preferred in midfield to Lee Cattermole.
But Poyet’s big call was to keep faith with Steven Fletcher, who retained his place up front, with Fabio Borini reverting to a role tucking in from the left flank.
Palace boss Tony Pulis made two changes from the defeat to Southampton with Adrian Mariappa and Thomas Ince preferred to Jason Puncheon and Dean Moxey.
Sunderland created a half-chance in the fourth minute when Adam Johnson curled in an inswinging cross from the right, which bounced high and wide off Steven Fletcher’s shoulder six yards out.
The Black Cats remained bright in the exchanges which followed, without being able to create a clear-cut opportunity.
Fletcher went closer in the 23rd minute when Borini thrashed a cross-come-shot into the area from the left of goal, which the Scotland striker just couldn’t get enough contact to with his attempted back-heel.
On the half hour mark, Seb Larsson’s free-kick from the right was only headed out as far as Ki, 20 yards out, but the South Korean sliced his volley high and wide of the target.
Borini went close to breaking the deadlock two minutes before the interval when Palace winger Thomas Ince diverted the ball back into his own area and the Italian attempted an overhead kick from the left of goal which was just high and wide of the far post.
HALF-TIME Sunderland 0 Crystal Palace 0
Poyet made a change at the interval with Jozy Altidore replacing Fletcher, who seemed to pick up a knock during the first half.
Six minutes into the half, Altidore went desperately close to giving Sunderland the lead when he managed to bring Brown’s ball over the top under control before hitting a powerful left-footed shot on the turn.
The ball looked to be heading into the near top corner, but Julian Speroni produced excellent reflexes to tip it behind.
But it was not a fair relection of what was to follow, with both sides desperately struggling to create chances.
With seven minutes to go, Borini went desperately close to giving Sunderland the lead within a matter of seconds.
First, the Italian was picked out by Ki down the right-hand side of the area and he fired a powerful right-foot shot which cannoned back off the crossbar.
And then Sunderland managed to feed Borini again on the edge of the Palace area, before the on-loan Liverpool man curled a right-footed shot just over the top on the turn.
Palace went desperately close to nicking all three points in the 89th minute when Cameron Jerome managed to bobble the ball into the path of Kagisho Dikgacoi, to the right of goal, eight yards out.
Dikgacoi unleashed a powerful right-footed shot across goal which rocketed fractionally beyond the far post.
FULL-TIME Sunderland 0 Crystal Palace 0
SUNDERLAND: Mannone, Bardsley, O’Shea, Brown, Alonso, Bridcutt, Ki, Larsson (Gardner 62), Johnson (Scocco 83), Borini, Fletcher (Altidore 46). Subs not used: Colback, Vergini, Cattermole, Ustari. Booked: Bridcutt (19), Larsson (57), Gardner (64), Brown (79)
CRYSTAL PALACE: Speroni, Mariappa, Dann, Delaney, Ward, Bolasie (Puncheon 81), Dikgacoi, Jedinak, Ledley, Ince (Guedioura 74), Murray (Jerome 63). Subs not used: Hennessey, McCarthy, Thomas, Gayle. Booked: Mariappa (8), Ward (13), Dikgacoi (45), Delaney (58)
* Don’t miss the online Football Echo – available from around 6.45pm on this website – with the biggest and best coverage of SAFC and much more, including Tony Gillan’s View From The Bridge, Brian Patterson’s away guide to Norwich and Yesterdays, going back to 1982 for a crunch relegation clash against Leeds.