Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Sunderland in crisis – no hunger, no pace and no urgency

Sunderland's manager Martin O'Neill.
Sunderland's manager Martin O'Neill.
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PANIC STATIONS are not quite on DEFCON One ... but they are not far off.

Taking a step back, Sunderland realistically only need to average a point per game from the final eight Premier League outings to ensure a dramatically underwhelming campaign avoids the ultimate calamity.

But, at the moment, just one win looks a tall order, never mind a string of results to slump over the finish line.

Consideration of the next four opponents doesn’t bear thinking about. Sunderland are a sinking ship, while those below them display the battle, hunger and, most tellingly, urgency, sadly lacking in Martin O’Neill’s ranks.

A win, any win, yesterday would have dramatically altered Sunderland’s course, even if it had arrived in a game of such minimal quality.

But, despite benefiting from two pivotal refereeing decisions and then enjoying a huge chunk of fortune with Chris Foy’s inability to correctly spot Danny Rose’s location when he handled the ball, Sunderland fluffed their lines.

A draw felt like an almighty defeat.

Replacement Norwich keeper Lee Camp had a criminal one meaningful save to make in the second half ... and that came from Sunderland’s right-back – Craig Gardner one of the few players in red and white to display some attacking intent.

Sunderland’s build-up was pedestrian and predictable. Pass the ball sideways at half-pace, eventually get it out wide and then deliver a cross which was invariably cleared at the near post by the resilient Sebastien Bassong and Michael Turner.

It was no different before Mark Bunn’s sending-off; the dramatic lull in Sunderland’s approach play sparking a succession of set-pieces from Norwich where they took advantage of the hosts’ woeful zonal marking.

Even though they were down to 10 men, Norwich’s ability to simply keep their team shape was enough for them to contain Sunderland’s lacklustre attack.

Supporters are entitled to expect more from a front four costing more than £30million.

Yes, Sunderland are devoid of a central midfielder capable of dictating proceedings or picking a pass in behind – the latter deficiency barely seeing the Black Cats test Turner’s familiar lack of pace.

But, despite the lack of guile, neither the strike partnership nor the widemen could remotely claim to have tested Norwich’s back-line.

There is perhaps a caveat for Steven Fletcher and Danny Graham given the paucity of service which again came their way.

But with neither boasting the pace which this Sunderland team clearly lacks, it was all too easy for Turner and Bassong to keep them under wraps.

Graham produced some decent link-up play in the first half, but with the one golden chance which did come his way, he crumbled.

The lack of a goal is clearly weighing heavily upon the shoulders of the £5million man and it was a snatched, scuffed half-volley wide of the far post after Lee Camp pushed away Seb Larsson’s rasping drive.

Strikers have to be judged on those all-important opportunities.

Ultimately, it was a big miss. Never again in the match were Sunderland to enjoy that spell of pressure that they mustered in the five minutes before the break.

Yet the biggest indictment of Sunderland’s display was that neither Fletcher nor Graham were presented with a chance during a second half that the Black Cats allowed to pass them by.

Norwich doubled up doggedly on Stephane Sessegnon and Adam Johnson, but other than fleeting moments when they twisted out of close quarters, the pair were smothered.

Sessegnon’s return to form has not lasted and he should have at least hit the target with the late half-volley which provided one of Sunderland’s precious few opportunities.

At least, though, the Benin international had some mitigation as O’Neill played musical chairs with him in the finale.

Johnson had no such excuse, with his removal in the 84th minute greeted by ironic cheers from the Stadium of Light terraces.

For a player who created such grandiose expectations after his summer signing, Johnson continues to underwhelm.

The platform for Johnson has been shaky all season, with the England man too often forced to collect possession from a standing start or on halfway. That stems from a lack of offensive harmony and lack of partnerships throughout the team.

But, when Sunderland were looking to the £10m winger to deliver some magic to ease shattered confidence, he failed.

On three occasions, Johnson was well-placed to deliver during the second half, yet sent his crosses soaring into touch.

Then there were those ineffectual forays infield where he attempted to link up with Fletcher, but only succeeded in weakly surrendering possession.

The only surprise was that O’Neill waited until so late in the game to replace Johnson with Connor Wickham.

Chris Hughton believed Norwich would have triumphed if they had been blessed with their full quota of players and it was tough to argue with him.

Even with 10, they looked the more dangerous attacking side – the heavy touch of the stocky Grant Holt handing a major reprieve to error-prone Sunderland substitute Titus Bramble.

But Sunderland have been plagued by this meandering, directionless style going forwards for large parts of the season. Dropping ever closer to the relegation zone only brings it further into focus.

O’Neill recognises as much, admitting on the eve of the game that Sunderland lack genuine quality.

Providing they can narrowly prevail in an increasingly ominous situation, that is an issue which requires addressing in a significant manner during the summer.

But, on paper at least, Sunderland’s existing attacking ranks does boast quality.

They need to start showing it though. Immediately.

Twitter @youngsunecho