Even if Sunderland hold their nerve against Aston Villa, is it too late to save them?

Benteke scores for Liverpool
Benteke scores for Liverpool

Last summer was THE summer for Sunderland.

A side which had escaped relegation by the skin of its teeth clearly needed significant investment to prevent the endless pattern of near-misses halting before it was too late, rather than another sticky-back plaster solution.

Jermain Defoe gets a first-half shot away

Jermain Defoe gets a first-half shot away

Sunderland had surely played with fire long enough to learn their lessons?

With the bumper investment stemming from the new television deal, there was obvious incentive for throwing a few quid at the team too.

Sunderland did spend in the close season – a net outlay of £15-20million or so depending on how you interpret the figures – yet was that enough?

Many supporters rightly didn’t think so and now Sunderland are faced with the situation of having to splash the cash in a January transfer window where price tags are at a premium and Sam Allardyce is forced to look to the Continent for players unproven in the Premier League.

Lamine Kone should be the first of several additions arriving in the opening hours of the window, but is it already too late? The rot is set deep at the Stadium of Light after years of bungling.

There’s some half-decent players at Allardyce’s disposal, yet the lack of cohesion, confidence and philosophy has left him with no foundations with which to build upon.

Allardyce is starting to require miracle-workers in January, not just fresh blood to fill in a few holes – the most pressing of which is at centre-half after Sebastian Coates became the latest casualty in that position.

January may already be too late to save Sunderland’s Premier League skins.

It’s the quality and conviction to go and win a game – or at least not lose it – which is missing from Sunderland’s ranks.

Concentration is clearly an issue too after Sunderland swapped snail-paced starts in the opening exchanges of the first half, for similar lapses in the second.

At least there was far more commitment on show in the first half after Sunderland had shown little inclination to even compete, let alone remain in the Premier League, against Chelsea or Manchester City.

From the moment, Lee Cattermole zipped into Philippe Coutinho after just 45 seconds, there was a tempo and a determination to make life difficult for Liverpool’s players.

Yes, there were a couple of defensive wobblers which Sunderland got away with – Sebastian Coates producing a woeful pass out from the back and Jordan Henderson allowed to ghost unmarked into the box from a corner – and yes, the Black Cats were indebted to a couple of smart saves from Vito Mannone, who fully justified his selection.

Having Cattermole back in the fold unquestionably makes a difference. With the Teessider in the team, Sunderland have a leader and a player who sets the tempo. Without him, they are too often rudderless.

But commitment alone is not sufficient to remain in the Premier League.

From the moment Sunderland allowed Adam Lallana’s flick-on to ghost through to Christian Benteke for the only goal of the game, the hosts were a beaten team.

The belief oozed out of Allardyce’s players. They never looked capable of getting back into the encounter.

Other than a Fabio Borini effort straight down his throat, Simon Mignolet didn’t have a save to make.

Jeremain Lens, in particular, failed to grasp the mantle of being a hero off the bench. Far from justifying his price tag – as Allardyce had challenged him to do – the Dutch international merely lent favour to the suggestion that he wants out next month.

It was all so comfortable for a Liverpool side whose defensive vulnerabilities have been preyed upon by both Newcastle and Watford over recent weeks.

In hope, rather than expectation, Sunderland simply resorted to lumping it up to the 5ft 7in Jermain Defoe, who didn’t even have scraps to feed upon.

When Sunderland were still goalless and putting men behind the ball, then using the likes of Defoe and Borini to create something from nothing was a viable ploy, but after falling behind, Jurgen Klopp’s defence were on cruise control.

Defeat ramps up the heat of the pressure cooker for Saturday’s visit of basement boys Aston Villa considerably – a game of the ‘nearly’ deadmen which will inevitably be billed as a last chance battle for survival.

Realistically, it’s not going over the top to describe the encounter as such.

If Sunderland fail to beat a Villa side who appear to be equally inept, then the gap with the safety mark will surely be insurmountable, while any remaining fragments of confidence in the dressing room will disappear.

But with so much at stake, it’s going to be unbearably anxious inside the Stadium of Light.

After five defeats on the spin, every missed pass, every loose touch and every spurned opportunity will prompt groans and hands on head. That’s what such a dire run has produced and it’s a feeling that Sunderland fans know well.

The big worry is though that even if Sunderland do hold their nerve and beat Villa, then it still might be too little, too late.