DRAW specialists Sunderland and Stoke predictably lurched to a stalemate in a dire encounter at the Britannia Stadium today.
But Sunderland were indebted to Simon Mignolet for registering a sixth draw of the campaign after the Black Cats stopper produced a stunning late stop to deny Stoke defender Robert Huth.
Chances were a rarity in the Potteries with Sunderland comfortable at the back against a powder-puff Stoke attack, yet suffering a familiar tale of creative struggles at the other end.
Steven Fletcher wasted the best chance for the Black Cats when he took too long to get a shot away on the counter-attack.
Stoke, who similarly secured their sixth draw of the season, were equally as blunt going forward – finally testing Mignolet with five minutes to go when Huth was denied from six yards out.
Martin O’Neill made just one change to his starting line-up with back-from-suspension Lee Cattermole replacing Stephane Sessegnon, who was left on the bench.
Cattermole formed a central midfield trio alongside Seb Larsson and Jack Colback, with Adam Johnson and James McClean supporting from out wide.
Stoke midfielder Glenn Whelan failed to recover from a hamstring strain, with ex-Sunderland man Dean Whitehead keeping his place in the middle of the park for the Potters.
After a tame opening in which Sunderland looked in control, Stoke finally called Simon Mignolet into action in the 21st minute after Danny Rose was booked for a sliding challenge on Geoff Cameron on the right.
Charlie Adam whipped in an inswinging free-kick which was beaten away by Simon Mignolet.
After Danny Rose blocked Dean Whitehead’s attempted follow-up shot, the ball came back into the area to Ryan Shawcross whose half-volley was gathered by Mignolet.
Five minutes later, Colback received Steven Fletcher’s lay-off 25 yards but sliced his left-foot shot well wide of the post.
Michael Kightly attempted to curl a shot into the far corner in the 29th minute as he darted inside from the left, but his effort lacked power and it was headed clear from inside the six-yard box by Carlos Cuellar.
Sunderland went close two minutes later when Larsson’s free-kick on halfway, glanced off the head of Cuellar and bounced just wide of the upright.
HALF-TIME Stoke 0 Sunderland 0
Stoke were forced into a change early in the second half after Marc Wilson was left in agony following an innocuous challenge on Fletcher, with Andy Wilkinson replacing the Republic of Ireland international at full-back.
Johnson tried his luck from 30 yards in the 58th minute with a left-footed effort that sailed a couple of feet over the bar after the England winger had darted inside off the right.
Sunderland made their first change just after the hour mark when Sessegnon entered the fray in place of Larsson.
It was Sessegnon who created a golden opportunity to break the deadlock in the 76th minute after the Benin international caught Potters substitute Andy Wilkinson in possession on the counter-attack.
Sessegnon fed Fletcher to the right of goal, 15 yards out, but rather than hitting it first time, he checked back inside and that allowed Stoke to get men back.
Fletcher attempted to curl a left-footed shot towards the far corner which was blocked by the arm of Robert Huth, although the ex-Middlesbrough defender had his arms by his side.
Moments later, Cuellar sent a header wide after a spell of pinball in the Stoke box from Johnson’s corner.
Mignolet was finally called into action at the other end with five minutes to go and the Sunderland keeper proved more than up to the task.
Kightly curled in a free-kick from the left, which was met by Huth from six yards out, only for Mignolet to paw it away from point-blank range.
Huth produced another effort in the fifth of eight minutes of stoppage time, but Mignolet gathered the defender’s low header down to his left from Etherington’s corner.
Moments later, Sunderland were given another scare when Crouch was played through on goal from Etherington’s low ball, but Mignolet raced out of his goal and parried the ball away before Kightly fired into the side netting.
FULL-TIME Stoke 0 Sunderland 0
STOKE: Begovic, Cameron, Shawcross, Huth, Wilson (Wilkinson 53), Walters (Etherington 72), Whitehead, N’Zonzi, Adam (Owen 80), Kightly, Crouch. Subs not used: Sorensen, Jones, Upson, Palacios. Booked: Whitehead (57), Crouch (69)
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet, Gardner, Cuellar, O’Shea, Rose (Bardsley 83), Johnson (Saha 89), Larsson (Sessegnon 61), Colback, Cattermole, McClean, Fletcher. Subs not used: Westwood, Campbell, Kilgallon, Vaughan. Booked: Rose (21), Gardner (85)
Referee: Mark Halsey (Lancashire)