On a day when Sunderland took one step forward and two back in their fight against relegation, it was tempting to say they are still looking for a solution to their centre-forward problem.
Tempting, but not true.
The solution has identified itself, but Gustavo Poyet seems strangely reluctant to grasp it.
It is probably a little harsh to blame Sunderland’s failure to clamber out of the relegation zone on two men – Steven Fletcher and Jozy Altidore – who took it in turns to remind us if they are the answer the Black Cats are asking the wrong question.
However, a potent centre-forward could probably have turned dominance into victory for a team which totally outplayed Crystal Palace but still had to spend the closing minutes relying on the inadequacies of others to avoid defeat. Fortunately for them, Palace’s finishing was no more frightening than their own.
So it was that another “winnable” home game came and went without a win.
The 0-0 draw pushed Sunderland one place up the table but, more importantly, other results widened the gap to safety by two points.
Win one of their games in hand and the Black Cats will be without the relegation zone. The problem is, this team has lost the knack of doing so.
Since their impressive February 1 derby success, Sunderland’s only victory came against a Southampton whose attitude to the FA Cup was, to put it mildly, half-hearted.
For the first 45 minutes in particular, Sunderland’s was in many ways an impressive performance. The hosts had 69% of the ball in the opening half and it was not possession for the sake of it. Twelve chances were carved out in that time. Only one forced a save. Julian Speroni barely had to move his feet to collect Marcus Alonso’s long-range effort.
Only one man really stood out on a fairly mundane afternoon at the windswept Stadium of Light.
Once Adam Johnson faded after an impressive start, Fabio Borini was left to carry the fight to Palace more or less single-handedly.
In the 82nd minute he collected Ki Sung-Yeung’s threaded pass on the right of the penalty area and, from a tight angle, thundered a shot against the bar. A matter of seconds later he was on the opposite side of the 18-yard box, hitting a shot which went just over. He even took on the role of cheerleader, gesturing for the crowd to lift themselves above the lethargy of the football.
Taken in isolation, it could be seen as a sign Borini is doing quite nicely thank you on the left-hand side of midfield.
Viewed alongside the problems of those at the sharp end, it was a much more striking job application to be the team’s centre-forward,
Borini did the job there two weeks ago at Wembley. He became the first man to score for Sunderland in a major cup final and showed he can lead the line more effectively than anyone else in the squad. It seemed to count for nothing.
Poyet insisted after Saturday’s match Borini would get his chance down the middle but why the delay? It was the Uruguayan, not an over-excitable media, who described the Palace game as Sunderland’s “biggest of the season”. Even after Fletcher was forced off at half-time with an ankle injury, even as substitutions made the team progressively more positive, Borini remained on the fringes. Maybe Poyet, who could not even find a place on the bench for Emanuele Giaccherini, is just worried about who would replace Borini on the left but frankly finding a No.9 worthy of the name should be his over-riding priority. It is not that Borini is a reluctant centre-forward either.
On the contrary, the highly-ambitious Italian is desperate to prove his worth there. None of his three rivals for the job have made a case for it this season.
In the opening minutes Fletcher at least looked full of energy, not something said too often of him this season. The Scot buzzed around and linked play well but when Johnson’s cross came to him he headed it wide. It was a chance he would have put on target when Martin O’Neill was the manager.
When an awkward fall saw Fletcher swap places with Jozy Altidore at half-time, the American looked just as full of beans.
However, it was not a lack of effort those who booed at the final whistle were complaining about.
Six minutes into the second half Altidore forced Julian Speroni’s first meaningful save of the game. Unfortunately it was also his last.
A better first touch from Wes Brown’s excellent pass may have made the goalkeeper have to work harder still for his clean sheet.
If it suggested Sunderland were going to crank things up in the second half, the opposite proved to be true. They sank back into a slumber as the game meandered along.
Few on the field did badly, with the possible exception of the inconsistent referee Neil Swarbrick, but neither did many lift themselves beyond the mundane.
In the final minutes it looked like Palace might land the most hurtful of sucker punches when they finally started posing a threat themselves.
For the first 88 minutes Vito Mannone’s only real alarm had come when he caught his foot in the turf and sent a clearance straight to Thomas Ince. He recovered in time to save the shot.
However, Kagisho Dikagcoi shot wide when he ought to have won the game, and in added time Joe Ledley missed the target and Mannone saved low from Jason Puncheon.
Both relegation-threatened sides are crying out for a finisher.