Sunderland spluttering to safety
"It's a good step," Paolo Di Canio said, although it appears more like a splutter, a wheeze and then a crawl over the finishing line for Sunderland.
Heroes weren't forged against Southampton, but they may be by Tuesday night. Phil Bardlsey thought he'd scored the winner and felt it appropriate to remind fans who had stepped up to the plate when they'd needed a goal the most. At one time he had been Player of the Season, but the defender's perception has been somewhat muddied by disciplinary issues and, significantly, iffy performances.
The first half saw few chances for either side. It barely even produced a highlight until midway through the second period, when a circling plane trailing a banner in support of Sunderland temporarily averted the fans' eyes from what was happening on the pitch. The half-time introduction of Connor Wickham brought loud cheers, and 23 minutes later they got even louder: Bardsley crashed home a strike that saw the fans let out a huge exclamation. It sounded like joy, but the overriding feeling was relief.
Yet as more seasoned Sunderland fans can tell you, football has a habit of being chronically cruel in the wake of being kind. For a moment they were 11th, light years away from the Championship and potential midweek trips to Barnsley and Huddersfield. But then, just as they allowed themselves to believe that Di Canio would be leading Sunderland out for a full Premier League season, Southampton snatched that dream away.
Jason Puncheon, who has a history in the lower leagues, was the architect. After his initial header was saved, a lack of defensive concentration allowed Puncheon to poke the ball into the roof of the net.
In the blink of an eye, the boisterous crowd had been deflated like a punctured bouncy castle. In the early days of the Di Canio era, a vociferous atmosphere has not been difficult to create at the Stadium of Light, but even the Italian's most optimistic disciple could not ignore the scarcity of Black Cat goals.
Sunderland have been hamstrung by their absentees. First Lee Cattermole, then Steven Fletcher and the suspension to Stephane Sessegnon - too often this season the club's spine has been weakened. With veteran defender Wes Brown now also missing in action for the final games of the season, the club is left dealing with the repercussions of Martin O'Neill's decision to spend a lot on a little. Those decisions were telling against Southampton as they struggled to break down a well-organised side, with John O'Shea and Carlos Cuellar picked as libero-style playmakers.
Yet still Di Canio refuses to indulge in self-pity. Destiny is still Sunderland's to decide; a draw on the last day at Tottenham Hotspur will secure them safety, if Arsenal - who play Wigan in midweek - do not secure it for them beforehand.
As has been the habit of recent weeks, they will lose yet another player for that final game. Danny Rose is ineligible to face the club that currently owns him and signed off with another impressive performance. "Sign him up," the fans chanted. The likelihood of such an outcome will depend on which league Sunderland inhabit: Rose has flourished on Wearside this season and will fancy his chances in a Premier League club's first team next season.
A potential stay in the Championship is a fate Southampton will not be forced to consider. Many questioned the decision to replace Nigel Adkins with Mauricio Pochettino but, barring a freak set of results, his mission to keep the Saints in the top flight looks to have been a success. "I have been asked this question for four months," he said through his translator with a smile. "This is not a question for me."
The Saints have adopted a more attacking style under the Argentine but found it hard to produce incisive football in the final third. Though Gaston Ramirez was suspended, the Uruguayan has flattered to deceive, and it is clear to see why the club moved for Phillippe Coutinho in January.
Southampton are, however, blessed with the foundations of a good side. Luke Shaw continued to enhance his reputation at left-back while Morgan Schneiderlin seems ideal for a leadership role next season. As the visitors stroked the ball comfortably around a sodden Stadium of Light pitch, Di Canio could not help but admire them. Jay Rodriguez was singled out for praise, described as "the modern footballer" for blend of technique and strength.
While the visitors clinched the point that will surely save them, Sunderland may yet have work to do, and as Di Canio led his players on a lap of honour to mark the final home game of the season, there was a sombre tone to proceedings. Clad in a T-shirt paying tribute to his late parents, the Italian had hoped this day would see his side safe.
Still, he has taken eight points from six games - more than many would have predicted for Sunderland when the Italian rode in on a wave of political controversy. It may just be enough to see them safe.
Although Premier League football is not guaranteed, Di Canio confirmed one certainty for Sunderland's summer plans: change. Not necessarily mean a complete overhaul of the playing staff, he explained, but rather an overhaul of mentality and methodology.
He has the determination to see out his plans but, for now, with their Premier League status uncertain, the focus remains squarely on next weekend.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Simon Mignolet. Phil Bardsley might have scored the goal, but it was the Belgian who kept things tight at the back. A number of top-class saves showed why clubs like Arsenal have been interested in securing his services. Unlucky to concede the goal he did, Sunderland may need him on top form on the last day of the season when they travel to face Tottenham Hotspur.
SOUTHAMPTON VERDICT: Safety all but secured, the summer takes on huge significance in establishing a foundation in this division. Keeping players like Morgan Schneiderlin will be key to that work. Pochettino's aims are lofty, but the recruitment of a creative midfielder is key as they look to supplement the hard work they can already produce in the middle of the park.
SUNDERLAND VERDICT: By Tuesday night, Sunderland fans' nerves could be soothed but, regardless of whether they secure safety, they need significant investment in the summer. Leadership is sorely lacking among a quiet bunch of players, with only John O'Shea eager to take charge. There is a framework of a good side, but it lacks both dynamism and depth.