THE Hammers put another nail in Sunderland’s Premier League coffin on Saturday by denying the Black Cats the first away win their season so desperately needed.
Woefully out of form and in relegation trouble themselves, West Ham had to be grateful to the experienced Jussi Jaaskelainen and James Collins for restricting a Sunderland side which had clearly come for all three points.
But the Black Cats were once again their own biggest enemies – just as they were at Aston Villa – shooting themselves in the foot rather than firing themselves closer to safety.
Chances came and chances went at Upton Park for the visitors, who played some lovely passing and attacking football, only for their efforts on goal to let them down.
And the closest they came to finding the back of the net was when their joint top scorer, full-back Phil Bardsley – something which tells you all you need to know – hit the crossbar 10 minutes before the end of as good a first half of football as Sunderland have played this season.
Gus Poyet has improved Sunderland since his arrival, but he has only improved them from awful to moderate.
And while a return of eight points from his nine matches in charge is adequate, it is not good enough to undo the damage of just one point taken from the first seven games of the season.
The head coach is at least trying to go down fighting and, on Saturday, he made three changes to the side which faded so alarmingly against Spurs the previous week in a bid to find a winning formula.
In came Lee Cattermole, Emanuele Giaccherini and Fabio Borini, with the unwell Jack Colback, Adam Johnson and Steven Fletcher making way.
They were deployed in a promising 4-1-4-1 formation, with Cattermole in the holding defensive role and Seb Larsson the midfield workhorse supplementing the passing and creative talents of Ki Sung-Yueng and the two Italians behind Jozy Altidore.
They were up against a West Ham with only one win and five goals in their last eight games and the East End side were deprived of the services of the suspended Kevin Nolan and injured Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing.
Those depletions represented a great opportunity for Sunderland and they began the game intent on taking it.
The odds, admittedly, were against them taking it.
Before kick-off, this game would have been down as a 0-0 banker – given Sunderland have not scored away from home since August and not having won away from home since April; while West Ham’s own problems in front of goal are well-documented.
At the final whistle, the statisticians and bookies were to be proved correct.
But the goalless scoreline did not do justice to the attacking intent of both sides, Sunderland especially, with good chances for both teams in the opening stages.
Sunderland went close first – Ki forcing a save out of Jussi Jaaskelainen in the third minute – but West Ham responded immediately with Modibo Maiga firing wide at the near post, six yards out, after Mohamed Diame had nutmegged John O’Shea down the left wing.
The hosts followed that up with another cross from the left, which Maiga headed back across goal at the far post and Matt Jarvis was inches away from connecting with at the opposite upright.
But the best chance of all fell to Altidore in the fifth minute when he was played in ahead of the West Ham defence on the right, with only the keeper to beat, but, from 16 yards, he managed to drag an unconvincing, low shot across goal when he should really have smashed the target.
A beautifully-executed long-distance volley from Ki, from the resulting corner, was on target but was deflected wide as Sunderland kept up their good start and then Giaccherini saw a shot blocked inside the box.
West Ham were on the back foot, but not without a goal threat themselves and, in the 20th minute, they got the ball in the back of the net when, from a right-wing corner, James Tomkins headed back across goal and Guy Demel, at the far post, nodded the ball against Cattermole’s hand before powering the loose ball home from six yards out.
But referee Andre Marriner had spotted a push in the build-up and whistled for a foul before the ball had crossed the line.
The officials were getting stick from the home fans for a string of contentious decisions but Hammers’ supporters had reason to be grateful for Marriner’s forbearance on the half-hour when Altidore went down in the box under pressure from ex-Black Cat George McCartney.
“I wasn’t asking for it,” said Poyet afterwards. “If you’re at the top of the table you get them now and then – they’re possible – but if anything it was half a penalty – McCartney headed it; if he didn’t it would have been more.”
It was a feature of the game that the strikers were to pose the least threat to goal – Borini, Altidore and, when he came on, the struggling Fletcher, never seriously looked dangerous.
And Sunderland’s best chances before the break were Bardsley’s wonderful attempt from 25 yards out, on the left of goal, in the 34th minute which struck the crossbar, and Cattermole’s rising effort from range on the stroke of half-time which Jaaskelainen did well to hold.
Sunderland would have gone into the break hugely encouraged by that, but they could not sustain their good play of the opening 45 minutes as the second half descended into a largely scrappy affair.
The only moments of note before the hour were an appeal for handball when Altidore’s fierce shot struck the arm of the blameless Demel, who had his arms by his side, and a 20-yard grass-cutter from Ravel Morrison which brought the best out of under-worked Sunderland keeper Vito Mannone.
Diame fired into the side netting after gaining ground down the right, Borini shot wide when the ball was rolled to him across the 18-yard box and an Altidore shot on the turn from 15 yards was well-saved by Jaaskelainen, who was at full stretch, diving to his right, to snuff out the shot across him.
The conclusion was forming, though, that these two sides simply didn’t have the weapons to break the deadlock.
Both managers made substitutions hoping to change that and if there is one area that Poyet will have been disappointed in on the day, it will have been the failure of the new men to make a difference.
A major part of the Uruguayan’s strategy is to keep Sunderland at least into the game up until the hour mark and then look to make changes that will prove decisive.
But neither Fletcher, Adam Johnson nor Andrea Dossena were able to make anywhere near the impact the head coach would have wanted and Sunderland had to settle for the away point – useful in normal circumstances but not good enough in the current situation.
His side made a surge going into the last 15 minutes, with Bardsley driving wide from distance and it might all have been different had Ki got the goal his quickfire shot, after a slick Sunderland move, deserved.
The South Korean swivelled on the ball, just inside the six-yard box, on the left of goal, and made a great connection.
But the 38-year-old Jaaskelainen, who has been such a top keeper for so long, rolled back the years with an instinctive block at his near post.
The draw leaves Sunderland in a desperate position ahead of the visit of Norwich City this coming Saturday – which now genuinely is about as much of a must-win as you can get.
Sunderland need to win 10 of their remaining 22 fixtures to have a realistic chance of survival this season.
And the fact they have won just two of their opening 16 league games so far, offers little evidence that they will do so.
Against such a backdrop, tomorrow’s Capital One Cup quarter-final against Chelsea at the Stadium of Light takes place – an event which would normally would be the source of great excitement and not a little hype.
It will at least be a distraction from the league.
But only in the way you might notice your shoelace is undone while at the scene of a major road traffic accident.