Full-time: Sunderland 0 Crystal Palace 0
FIFTEEN days ago thousands of Sunderland fans put on their red and white shirt ahead of a rare Sunday afternoon at Wembley, they dared to dream about a FA Cup final outing in May and were optimistic about staying in the Premier League.
How quickly things can change in football. Since losing the Capital One Cup final to Manchester City, the Black Cats have followed that up with a deserved defeat in the FA Cup quarter-final at Hull City and missed a golden opportunity to give their fight to avoid the drop a serious lift.
During another afternoon of frustration at the Stadium of Light, more than 43,000 witnessed Sunderland stutter in the final third against a resilient Crystal Palace to stay firmly embroiled in a relegation fight after a goalless draw.
Suddenly the memory of the Sunderland in January, when they found the magic touch to go on a charge on three fronts, is fading fast and supporters are left wondering where the next victory will come from.
Norwich City this Saturday? Gustavo Poyet will certainly hope so, knowing his side have not won in the Premier League since February 1. Defender Wes Brown thinks the last couple of weeks have not knocked the stuffing out of the squad.
“I wouldn't say the bubble has burst,” said the experienced Brown. “If we'd played badly maybe you could agree with the people who say that. But we have played well enough to win this game.
“We just didn't manage it. On another day, a couple of our chances would have gone in and it would be a different story. We have to keep our heads up and keep our confidence and the same attitude.
“It's a big positive that we are keeping clean sheets now. If you do that you don't lose the game. We still need to get three points and win games. Norwich is another game we know we can win. The number of games left is coming down thick and fast now, we need to start putting points on the board.”
While Sunderland had plenty of efforts on Crystal Palace's goal they rarely looked like actually scoring. Goalkeeper Julian Speroni only had one real save to make when he dived to his right to palm away Jozy Altidore's shot shortly after half-time.
Aside from that chance, Fabio Borini struck a post from a difficult angle deep inside the second half while the out-of-sorts Steven Fletcher wasted a few half chances before he hobbled off with a twisted ankle at the interval.
Defensively Sunderland were solid enough, although Palace would have won it had midfielder Kagisho Dikgacoi not missed the target from eight yards in the final minute after a lovely lay-off from Cameron Jerome.
Brown said: “This was was an opportunity lost. We were very good first half. We put a lot of pressure on to them. Maybe we just missed that finishing touch. We played well enough to win the game.
“Overall it was a good all round performance. We should have got the three points but if we can keep that level of performance going now and keep the same attitude for next week, we still have a good chance of staying up. The confidence is still there and we are not going to let our heads to go down.”
Despite having 11 matches remaining to climb to safety, the bigger picture is that Sunderland need to find something extra in the penalty area if they are to avoid a 46-game season in the Championship.
Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Chelsea and Everton are among those still to play, so points will not come easily and the fixture list already points to a massive final week when they face West Brom and Swansea at home in May.
Sunderland’s Marcos Alonso takes the ball past Crystal Palace’s Yannick Bolasie
Brown said: “It's getting closer. The only good thing for us is that everyone down there is still so close to us. I know we have a game or two in hand. One of those is against Manchester City though.
“We just have to try to take every point we can. We can still get points against the big teams as well, we have shown that before. I don't think anyone will want to go in to the last two games needing points, it's not an ideal situation. We have to try to get points on the board before we get to them.”
If Sunderland are to climb out of trouble in the final six weeks of the campaign then leapfrogging Palace could well be one of their main challenges.
And Eagles goalkeeper Julian Speroni, an Argentine who has struck up a good friendship over the years with fellow South American Poyet, thinks if anyone can keep Sunderland up then they have that man.
“Gus came to Sunderland at a difficult time but that is normal for managers,” said Speroni, who has known the Sunderland boss since meeting him in London earlier in his career.
“I have no doubt he is up for the challenge and he will be good here. When we played them and beat them 3-1 in August they were really struggling and you could see it. Gus has managed to settle the ship, and you can tell the difference, they are playing a lot better.
“I know how Gus likes his team to play. They always play football. The bottom half is so tight. It is the team that holds their nerve to the end that will stay up. Both teams have a good chance to stay up.”