Maybe it is just as well all Sunderland’s remaining away games this season are matches they ought to lose. The Black Cats seem too mentally weak to win those they are expected to.
They have just played two such matches and come away with a point.
For 40 minutes at Norwich City, they were pathetic. Lee Cattermole’s introduction as part of a first-half double substitution raised their level to humdrum but it was too little, too late.
Play like that for the rest of the season and Gustavo Poyet’s pussy Cats are guaranteed to be relegated.
The straw to grasp at for the supporters who comfortably outperformed those they paid to watch is that Sunderland are nothing if not inconsistent.
Ordinarily it would be typical for them to take points at Anfield on Wednesday but without 50% of their goal threat – Fabio Borini is on a season-long loan from Liverpool – and with Andrea Dossena set to deputise for the brainless Marcos Alonso, not to mention the Reds’ recent form, that would take a huge leap of the imagination.
This was a very big game. Only Norwich seemed to notice.
Its importance to Sunderland was magnified by the previous week’s 0-0 draw at home to Crystal Palace, and the fact their remaining away games are at Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs.
At the Stadium of Light the pressure of expectation seems too great for them. They only tend to win when it is not there.
Even about as far away as Premier League football can take you, in Norwich, that pressure consumed the visitors. If you had not seen a league table before the game you would have thought the Canaries were the only ones fighting for their lives. Sunderland looked like a team snuggling into mid-table mediocrity as their season peters out.
While Norwich energetically got the ball wide and put in crosses their opponents were too often unable to deal with, the Black Cats’ were lethargic.
Ki Sung-Yueng was substituted for gifting too many freebies in possession, their closing down of men slovenly and their tackling loose on a day when referee Phil Dowd was not in a lenient mood.
Jozy Altidore was feeding off starvation rations but when the ball came to him he trapped it further than some of his team-mates seemed capable of passing it. Selecting Altidore in this embarrassing trough of despond is as wrong-headed as it is cruel.
With Steven Fletcher injured, Borini unavailable and Ignacio Scocco no better from the bench, Poyet will probably feel he has little choice but to at Anfield, but unfortunately anyone would be better just now. Norwich got their reward, Sunderland their just desserts.
Martin Olsson’s 20th-minute left-wing cross evaded John O’Shea but picked out Wes Brown. He played it straight to John Elmander, who passed for Robert Snodgrass to open the scoring. Alex Tettey will probably not score another volley as good as the one which doubled the lead 13 minutes later for as long as he lives, but it only gave the scoreline a more realistic look. By then Sunderland’s substitutes were warming up. You hardly ever see a tactical substitution in the first half of a Premier League football match.
To drag a player off without giving him the half-time interval to compose himself is a real indignity. Poyet made a double change after 40 minutes. He said it was the first time in more than 200 games as a manager he had done it and not something he had ever expected to have to do.
Poyet claimed he could have brought off any two from eight. Answers on a postcard as to who the other three were, because I can only think of Borini and Vito Mannone. It might have seemed like a dramatic act of petulance or a mea culpa. The interpretation of watching chairman Ellis Short would be fascinating to know – but it worked.
The Wearsiders matched Norwich’s 4-2-3-1 and looked better for it. Cattermole’s booking for dissent four minutes after entering the pitch was not a good omen but for the most part his passion was correctly channelled and brought much-needed life to his team.
Six minutes into the second half John Ruddy even made a save as Brown headed Adam Johnson’s cross from a short corner.
With Norwich far from convincing it set the mind racing as to what might happen if Sunderland, the expectation now lifted from them, could sneak a goal.
That, though, was as close as we got to finding out.
The Black Cats were better in the second half, but not good. Had Ricky van Wolfswinkel – mirroring Altidore’s form since the pair moved from the Eredivisie to England – not been up front for Norwich they would have scored more.
After 55 minutes Alonso attempted a pass to his opposite full-back from inside his own half. The ball went at least five yards behind Phil Bardsley.
It was indicative of the scrambled thinking which saw the Spaniard do his best impression of a goalkeeper coming for a cross in added time.
With defeat imminent its impact on this game was the square root of nothing but it earned Alonso a second yellow he had been risking for the quarter of an hour since recklessly clattering into Snodgrass on the touchline – and means Dossena will almost certainly have to face his rampant former club in midweek.