Yet another failure leaves Sunderland relying on Arsenal or Villa

Posted by Colin Randall

Scott Heavey/Getty ImagesPhil Bardsley's goal sent Paolo Di Canio into utter jubilation only to see Southampton equalize eight minutes later.

If you needed one match to sum up the woefulness of Sunderland's season, this was it.

For the second home game in succession, a draw was scraped when victory was required. And not a soul among Sunderland's undeservedly large army of supporters could seriously protest after a game in which relatively modest opposition, as so often since last August, was made to look more like a bunch of world-beaters.

Sunderland 1-1 Southampton.

- Match report: Sunderland 1-1 Southampton

Briefly, it looked as if Paolo Di Canio's underperforming, frequently non-performing, side might have fashioned their own Premier League safety.

Phil Bardsley delivered one of his very occasional and, as they usually are, very impressive long-range strikes and, after being dominated for much of the game beforehand, Sunderland were ahead.

The goal was a fair reward on the basis of the 10-15 minutes of pressure that had preceded it, but let us not pretend the Saints did not do enough over the game as a whole to justify at least the point Jason Puncheon won soon after entering the fray as substitute. Sunderland's lead had lasted all of eight minutes.

From then on, there was little to suggest that anything but a draw or away win would be the likely outcome. Southampton might have grabbed a winner; Sunderland did not seem capable of scoring again. The stats were telling: 10 Saints corners and 10 Saints shots on target to Sunderland's three and five, respectively and 55 per cent of possession to Saints. Simon Mignolet produced the only serious saves that had to be made.

So an excruciating season comes down to reliance on two other teams to do what Sunderland seem unable to do for themselves: ensure their own Premier League place.

You may have noticed that I exclude the possibility of Sunderland leaving the pitch at White Hart Lane next Sunday as a side that has just avoided defeat.

No one viewing the shocking overall quality of performances in the past three games, or for much of the season preceding them, would expect any other result than a comfortable Spurs win. If I am right with that gloomy assessment, Sunderland will stay up only if Wigan fail to beat both Arsenal away on Tuesday night and Aston Villa at home on the final day. Win both games and, barring a result at Tottenham few would predict, Wigan survive.

Until recently I would have said Wigan had no chance of six points from those two games. One or two plucky recent showings in the Premier, and Saturday's heroics at Wembley, have changed all that.

Arsenal, of course, have a top four place to play for. But they are not on top of the world after a glorious FA Cup final win -- and have shown all season they are eminently capable of wobbling. A large chunk of the footballing world will be rooting for the underdogs again. As for Villa, I'd expect them to be easy meat for a buoyant Wigan if the defeat of Manchester City were, indeed, to be followed by victory at the Emirates.

A win and a draw for Wigan from those games would introduce the mathematical possibility of Sunderland going down on goal difference. But that would require not only something like another six-goal hammering for PDC's men at Spurs -- against which I would not bet much money -- but almost as emphatic a defeat for Arsenal on Tuesday or Villa a few days later.

In fact, I am not sure I would bet on very much at all concerning the outcome of the relegation battle.

But I would wager everything I possess on the certainty that PDC now knows as well as any Sunderland supporter just what a rebuilding task he has inherited -- whether in readiness for a more competitive season in the Premier or a desperate battle to return to it.

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