Sunderland making hard work of survival

Danny Graham is brought down by Joleon Lescott
Danny Graham is brought down by Joleon Lescott

THE HALLOWED 40-point mark is an utter irrelevance this season.

At least two members of the bottom four are not going to be registering 18 points from their final 12 league games.

There is no chance that a tally as high as 40 will be needed to beat the drop.

Other than 2010-11, 37 has been sufficient for survival in the last seven years. It might not even need to be that much this year.

Mid-30s could suffice.

If Sunderland average a point per game over their final 12 outings, then they should be all right, barring any of the miracles which the Black Cats proved to be masters of last Spring.

That’s not the biggest ask for Gus Poyet’s men. It’s slightly dispiriting to be targeting 37 points, but needs must, and survival is now the primary aim from a campaign which has seen too many drab affairs like Saturday’s stalemate against West Brom.

Will Sunderland fulfil that objective? Probably.

While Premier League victories have been far too scarce for Sunderland, they’ve still had a knack of picking up points, with the Black Cats now just four shy of equalling the Premier League record of 17 draws in a 38-game season.

But while Sunderland should ultimately be fine, they seem unable to take that decisive step away from the relegation dogfight and enjoy a stress-free finale to the campaign.

That, together with the sluggish progress in developing a clear playing style, have been failed targets from this season – reinforced by the latest of Sunderland’s painful eight goalless draws.

Prior to successive league games against Burnley, Swansea, QPR and West Brom, Sunderland really needed to be putting a minimum of seven points on the board to get some breathing space.

Poyet’s men have managed just five, to leave themselves still looking over their shoulders and facing another pivotal encounter at bogey team Hull City in eight days time after Saturday’s trip to Old Trafford.

There was a positive reaction from a difficult week against the Baggies and the crowd responded with an atmosphere full of encouragement and none of the friction on the terraces which marred the FA Cup humiliation at Bradford.

Sunderland’s effort couldn’t be faulted, they were by far the more ambitious side and they suffered from yet more poor officiating.

But Sunderland still fell short and still boast just four top flight wins to their name.

It was evident on Saturday why both Sunderland and West Brom will continue to linger on the coat-tails of the bottom three, in an encounter that proved to be a wasted afternoon for England boss Roy Hodgson.

West Brom, as Tony Pulis’ Crystal Palace side did at the Stadium of Light last season, came for a point and got it, with a supremely well-drilled defensive effort.

But the Baggies’ attacking threat was pathetic. There wasn’t any.

In theory, England hopeful Saido Berahino (who showed Hodgson nothing) and the in-form Brown Ideye were supposed to stretch Sunderland on the counter-attack, yet Costel Pantilimon never had a meaningful save to make.

It was classic Pulis back-to-basics, yet will surely be sufficient for West Brom to beat the drop.

Sunderland were allowed to dominate possession, pin back the visitors back in their own half and wrack up a total of 11 corners.

But as in too many games this season, Sunderland couldn’t break the Baggies down, as they drew a blank for the third successive game.

There was a lack of nous from Sunderland, even if Poyet had taken the bold step of deploying an orthodox 4-4-2 and ended the game with three strikers on the field.

Too many blind alleys were occupied, too many crosses delivered from deep, and not sufficient ideas evident to get in behind the Baggies and find a solution to their doubling up on Sunderland’s widemen.

Ricky Alvarez, in particular, frustrated when he persistently opted to cut inside and hit hopeful shots from distance, rather than going down the outside of makeshift left-back Chris Brunt and getting to the by-line.

Saying that, Alvarez should have had an assist when his floated inswinging cross was collected by Adam Johnson and dinked beyond Ben Foster, only for the linesman to erroneously raise his flag.

In fairness, it was a desperately tight call. There was less mitigation for the decision to spare Joleon Lescott a fifth minute red card.

There was minimal contact between Lescott and Danny Graham, with Pulis coming out with a good quip afterwards: “I have seen old women in the High Street take more of a knock and stay on their feet than what the lad did. “

Referee Mike Jones wasn’t going to give it, but after the linesman had raised his flag, Lescott surely had to go.

There was an argument that Graham wasn’t in full control of the ball, yet he wasn’t going to be if he was being fouled.

Those fine margins from the officials were big moments in a game where there were never going to be a glut of opportunities.

But even though Sunderland were limited to a point, the big positive for Poyet was that his side showed some character and despite the previous two results, displayed little of the anxiety which dogs teams in the relegation scrap.

It was a shrewd move to pick players with plenty of experience of nervy, tight situations. The fear of how the crowd would react if Sunderland conceded early on, was a scenario that never threatened to pass.

The return of Lee Cattermole was a huge factor in that, even if it was a big ask for the Teessider to play 90 minutes in a midfield two after almost two months on the sidelines.

There were a couple of fierce tackles to raise the volume of the crowd, but it’s Cattermole’s presence as much as anything else which is so crucial for the Black Cats.

With Cattermole in the side, Sunderland look a far more resolute, far more confident and far more competent outfit. There isn’t the fragility which was so brutally evident against both QPR and Bradford.

Sunderland have lacked the quality this season to register sufficient victories to take that decisive step away from the threat of relegation.

But with Cattermole back in their ranks, Sunderland have extra solidity and that may well be enough for them to scramble over the finishing line.

There’ll be a few bitten finger-nails along the way though.