IN terms of the league table, Saturday's 2-0 defeat to Norwich City made no tangible difference to Sunderland's chances of escaping relegation this season. They started the afternoon three points adrift of safety, and finished it in exactly the same position as Cardiff, Crystal Palace and West Brom also failed to pick up a point.
Yet in so many other ways, the latest disastrous defeat of an increasingly calamitous campaign felt like the beginning of the end. Relegation suddenly feels like a crushing inevitability. Positivity, while not completely extinguished, is increasingly hard to justify.
Perhaps that is too harsh an assessment given that the Black Cats still have ten games to play, two more than all of their relegation rivals, and that their fixture list still contains home matches against West Ham, Cardiff, West Brom and Swansea. Take 12 points from those, all of which could come under the term 'winnable', and things would look very different indeed.
But given that Sunderland have just taken one point from matches against Crystal Palace and Norwich, failing to score in either encounter, why should it be assumed they are capable of taking maximum points from any of their remaining games? They have only won three from 14 at the Stadium of Light all season. Why should anyone imagine they are suddenly going to win four from four?
None of that is new of course, but it was thrown into stark prominence in the wake of Saturday's spineless capitulation at Carrow Road. Any pretence of Sunderland having the class to calmly extricate themselves from the relegation zone was abandoned long ago, but hope was pinned to the fighting spirit of a group of players who appeared to have successfully regrouped after the damaging divisions created by Paolo Di Canio, and the tactical acumen of manager Gustavo Poyet.
Is anyone taking those things for granted now? Sunderland's players lacked any semblance of urgency or commitment as they were comprehensively out-battled and out-played in the first half at Norwich. While their opponents looked like a side who knew their Premier League status was on the line, snapping into tackles and constantly trying to drive each other on, the Black Cats sleepwalked their way through the opening 45 minutes as if they either didn't appreciate the significance of the occasion or, perhaps more alarmingly, didn't care.
“It was very poor from us,” admitted midfielder Liam Bridcutt. “That was probably one of the worst performances we've had since I've been here. We just weren't at it.
“We know we were bad, and we know that the only positive we can take from it is that we've got a game in less that three days to put it right.
“All credit to Norwich, they were very good, but we were very poor. We know we need to work harder and have a bit more quality.”
It is hard to imagine a more callow and inept performance than the one Sunderland produced before the break, with Norwich's midfielders completely overwhelming their opponents as their superior desire and tempo told.
The hosts might well have claimed the lead before Robert Snodgrass side-footed home in the 20th minute, with the midfielder benefiting from a wretched attempted clearance from Wes Brown that merely presented the ball to Johan Elmander.
To be fair, there was nothing anyone in a Sunderland shirt could have done about Norwich's second goal, a magnificent volleyed strike from Alex Tettey which has not received the recognition it deserved because of Wayne Rooney's subsequent heroics at Upton Park, but it was impossible to deny that the Canaries fully merited their two-goal half-time lead.
Norwich celebrate Alex Tattey's volleyed goal
By the time the interval arrived, Poyet had already seen enough to replace Jack Colback and Ki Sung-Yueng with Lee Cattermole and Seb Larsson, and while Sunderland never really looked like clawing back their deficit in the second half, at least they provided a semblance of competition, even if there was a sting in the tail when Marcos Alonso was dismissed for a deliberate handball in the 90th minute.
Cattermole deserves much of the credit of that, with his leadership qualities and immediate desire to wrest possession and at least attempt to create something positive standing in marked contrast to the timidity of his team mates.
Say what you like about Cattermole's lack of composure and discipline – and it should not be forgotten that the midfielder was booked for dissent within four minutes of coming on to the field – at least he plays with his heart on his sleeve and reliably gives his all. For that alone, he should be the first name on the team sheet for the remaining ten games.
“It was good to see the drive from Lee, and that's why I changed it,” said Poyet. “People might think that because we were 2-0 down, you shouldn't play Lee Cattermole because you need an offensive player.
“But it wasn't about an offensive player, it was about character, bringing other people into the game and giving me something we didn't have – energy. That's what Lee is all about.”
Sunderland's best second-half chance came to nothing when John Ruddy saved Brown's close-range header with his legs, but at least the visitors' shape was much better after the interval.
That leads to questions about Poyet's starting line-up, and the Uruguayan's continued faith in Jozy Altidore is becoming increasingly impossible to fathom. Lacking mobility, pace and any hint of a goalscorer's instinct, Altidore contributed next to nothing despite Norwich's central-defensive pairing of Sebastian Bassong and Joseph Yobo appearing shaky throughout. He will have to start at Anfield on Wednesday with Fabio Borini ineligible, but beyond that, he has surely settled his bar tab in the last-chance saloon.
The same could well be said of the midfield partnership between Ki and Colback, which has appeared increasingly ineffectual in recent games. Poyet's options in this area are limited, but more creativity will be required when Sunderland return to the Stadium of Light, and it could well be time to bring Emanuele Giaccherini back in from the cold.