Chris Coleman's message is getting through but lack of cutting edge leaves Sunderland running out of time
In the closing stages on Saturday, the realities of this bruising contest and Sunderland's position in the table were playing out against each other.
For the most part, Chris Coleman’s Black Cats were playing for time, maximising any opportunity to breathe and take the sting out of a Millwall side who had battered their box throughout the second half.
In the opening moments, the Lions had struggled, often reduced to aimless long balls, but after the break they were superb. They played with intensity and physicality, with Sunderland often struggling to cope.
The Wearsiders aren’t the first to endure such an onslaught, as Millwall’s excellent home record suggests.
In that sense, Sunderland could see the value of a point and were happy to take it. Yet it was clear to all that it may well not be enough. After a brutal start to 2018, Coleman had regularly fumed at his players’ application, or lack thereof, but, in recent weeks, his tone has softened and that reflects the fact that his message is getting through.
For the third game in a row, his squad battled, an encouraging sign but only scant consolation when the points yield in that time has been just two.
So they pushed, where possible, for a winner, Ashley Fletcher spurning a great chance to cross for Joel Asoro and Bryan Oviedo delivering a desperately disappointing free-kick with the last kick of the game.
A draw was the end result, one which Millwall absolutely deserved, one which Sunderland took some comfort from but one which does little to change their precarious position.
With Birmingham and Bolton losing, Hull, Barnsley and Burton not playing, it goes down as a difficult opportunity missed.
That Sunderland were not able to build on the hard-earned momentum from the first half will be a source of major frustration.
With Jason Steele providing some much-needed and long overdue stability between the goalposts, the Black Cats battled their way into the game and began posing plenty of questions.
Coleman had returned to a 3-4-2-1 system that had floundered early in his tenure, but, on this occasion, Aiden McGeady and Callum McManaman were impressing, finding space in the channels and creating opportunities.
Oviedo’s stunning strike to open the scoring, a fierce left-foot shot into the top corner of the net, was worthy reward for their efforts.
After the break, the visitors simply couldn’t get out of their own half, in part due to Millwall’s efforts but also down to an obvious lack of confidence.
It was in this period that the difference in experience between the two sides, particularly in the final third, was telling.
Lee Gregory and Steve Morison were clever in their movement for Millwall, constantly peeling into space and offering an outlet to their team.
They held the ball up, brought team-mates into the equation and made good runs into the box.
Sunderland have real problems in that regard and an obvious lack of presence.
Fletcher simply couldn’t make the ball stick when his side were under pressue.
His movement off the shoulder is good and he has a canny knack of beating defenders in one-on-one situations, but confidence is low and his hold-up play is not there at the moment.
Joel Asoro again showed signs of his talent when coming off the bench, but the feeling remains that Sunderland are just short of that ruthless streak they need to go on a long run like they so badly need.
Millwall’s scrappy equalising goal came from a strong set-piece, Shaun Hutchinson lashing home a rebound, something they were excellent at all afternoon.
They are exactly the kind of team Sunderland have folded against this season. That they didn’t fold this time, Coleman was offered some reassurance.
After the game, as he often does, he pointed out exactly how many points are still to play for.
The problem is, we are now out a stage where the total is 33 and that is not particularly reassuring.
Sunderland need at least 18 in that time to even be in contention to beat the drop.
Somehow, they have to find that cutting edge to get over the line and they arguably only have a week to do it.