FOR the second time in just over a month, Emanuele Giaccherini failed to be a hero against the Villans.
When the sides met at Villa Park on November 30, the Italian had a chance to underline Sunderland’s superiority that day by putting away the best chance of the game.
But, from three yards out, he swivelled and hooked his shot over an open goal as Gus Poyet looked on with jaw dropping.
Yesterday, opportunity knocked again and this time the Italian took it, only for his 52nd-minute “goal” to be very harshly chalked off for offside.
The decision could have so easily, and probably should have, gone the other way, but, like so many moments this season, it wasn’t to be for Sunderland.
Fractions and fine margins.
Just like Jozy Altidore’s failure to convert a slippery chance in front of an open goal in Sunderland’s previous outing at Cardiff on Saturday.
Or, if you want to put the officials in the dock: just like the failure to spot Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge scoring with his arm, or red-carded Wes Brown winning the ball cleanly against Stoke’s Charlie Adam, or the fact Altidore’s disallowed goal against Arsenal was legitimate.
There are many more examples if you rake over the bones of Sunderland’s season so far with a tooth-comb and a magnifying glass.
Fractions and fine margins.
But add them together and then you get the gulf which threatens to separate Sunderland from the rest at the bottom of the table and end their interest in the season prematurely.
Poyet knows it is more than just bad luck.
“There’s always something with us,” he observed.
Yesterday, he offered up Giaccherini’s harsh offside as Sunderland’s “excuse of the day”, but inside he was seething at his side’s collective failure to launch yet again.
And rather than choose his words carefully afterwards, he chose not to choose them at all – opting for diplomatic silence rather a Di Canio-style diatribe.
It probably took a greater strength of will for him to do that, than his players were able to muster in a game where their brittle confidence was again exposed – this time as much by the atrocious weather conditions, as by a Villa side which sat deep and looked to make the most of Gaby Agbonlahor’s pace and Christian Benteke’s power high upfield.
The teeming rain on the slick surface suited the visitors’ counter-attacking style, while diminishing the confidence with which Sunderland could play their patient passing style.
Nevertheless, the Wearsiders started well enough and had three good openings before Villa took a 15th-minute lead against the run of play.
Poyet made four changes to the side that grabbed a last-gasp point at Cardiff – Ji Dong-won being the surprise one, as the South Korean was drafted in for the first time under Poyet along with Steven Fletcher, Jack Colback and Ondrej Celustka – as Altidore, Fabio Borini, Seb Larsson and Andrea Dossena making way.
Villa made two changes – powerful frontman Benteke and experienced centre-half Ron Vlaar returning from injury.
But it was Giaccherini who caught the eye in the opening stages – producing Sunderland’s first shot in the sixth minute, driven narrowly wide, before feeding Fletcher with a golden opportunity from which the striker should have hit the target.
Giaccherini then provided a deep cross from the left in the ninth minute, which Ji mis-controlled off his thigh at the far post before subsequently shooting wide.
Then came disaster for Sunderland when Valentin Roberge, on the left, mid-way inside the Sunderland half, passed the ball inside to Cattermole, who failed to stop it running over his boot and into the path of the gleeful Agbonlahor.
The Villa striker could not have wished to be teed up more perfectly and he skipped around keeper Vito Mannone before stabbing the ball into an empty goal as Cattermole back-tracked despairingly.
The Black Cats tried to hit back immediately – Colback unlucky to see his shot blocked from 12 yards – although it took until the 26th minute for Sunderland to produce their first shot on target, with Ki Sung-Yueng’s low shot forcing Brad Guzan to dive low and smartly to his right.
But Villa remained dangerous on the counter-attack.
Leandro Bacuna burst upfield and dragged a shot across goal from the left in the 18th minute, Agbonlahor broke on goal five minutes later and forced a great block from Mannone.
And when Cattermole lost the ball once more to Agbonlahor, just before the half-hour, home fans started to lose patience.
Sunderland regained possession and dominance in the minutes that followed, but they struggled to make an impact in the final third – the best they had to offer before the break coming when Ji’s eight-yard shot was blocked in the 42nd minute.
Poyet reacted at half-time to try to focus a distracted side, removing Cattermole, who appeared to be at war with himself as tension built at the Stadium of Light.
He was replaced by Fabio Borini’s attacking intent, but Sunderland could easily have fallen further behind when a powerfully struck Bacuna shot cannoned off the back of Roberge.
Sunderland then had that great chance to go level, when Fletcher headed down from left of goal to Giaccherini, who controlled and squeezed a left-foot shot inside Guzan’s right-hand post.
A goal then would have made all the difference, but barely were Sunderland fans out of their seats than they were sat back in them at the sight of the linesman’s flag.
Replays showed that the offside could not have been closer and Giaccherini and Sunderland could not have been more unlucky.
Sunderland were not deterred.
Borini was on the end of Sunderland’s next chance, his shot from the edge of the area blocked on the hour, and, from the resulting corner from the left, Phil Bardsley fizzed a 20-yard shot just wide.
It was not endeavour Sunderland lacked, it was quality in the final third.
The game started to become bad-tempered – Ki struck in the face by Agbonlahor’s elbow as they battled for the ball and astonished to find himself booked in the ensuing argument.
Ki and Giaccherini both fired shots wide from hopeful distances as the game wore on.
But Villa showed them the way in terms of attacking intent around the box – Bardsley heading off his own goal-line after Benteke threatened to break through.
Poyet brought on Jozy Altidore and then Adam Johnson, going for all-out attack, but both were wholly anonymous.
And it was Villa who finished the stronger side – substitute Marc Albrighton forcing the save of the game out of Mannone in the 82nd minute with a rising effort to the keeper’s top-left hand corner before powering an effort over the bar, three minutes later after being put clean through on goal, when he really should have scored.
Sunderland, meanwhile, were making a hash of things at the other end, with Colback and Giaccherini failing with final balls, while Colback was lucky to escape a red card when Agbonlahor went through and the Sunderland midfielder got up to retaliate.
That reaction, from the normally unflappable Colback, summed up a day of exasperation felt keenly by all those with the home team’s interests at heart in the Stadium of Light.
And although referee Mike Jones was rightly criticised for his fussy approach to the game, the official at least deserved credit for not handing out another red card to a team that is top of the table in that regard.
The final whistle brought the expected boos from a home crowd of close to 40,000 disappointed to be set up by the hope of a five-match unbeaten run, only to be hit by the sucker-punch of a below-par performance.
Watching from the stands was Poyet’s first signing as Sunderland head coach, Marcos Alonso, and the Uruguayan is in the hunt for Brighton’s fulcrum Liam Bridcutt and winger Will Buckley.
But more than anything, he needs a proven goalscorer to bring a greater threat to this toothless Sunderland side which has not scored in nine of its 20 league games this season.
The bottom-of-the-table Black Cats’ position could hardly be more perilous.
Lose to Fulham in their next Premier League fixture – on January 11 – and it will begin to look irretrievable.