Full-time: Sunderland 1 West Ham United 2
WITH eight games still to play, it is premature to say that Sunderland's survival bid is over. Like it or not, though, that is exactly how it feels.
Last night's 2-1 defeat to West Ham means the Black Cats remain four points adrift of safety, and while that might not be an insurmountable gap in terms of the number of matches remaining, it is becoming increasingly impossible to see how they are going to fashion the results required to get themselves out of trouble.
In short, if they can't beat Crystal Palace and West Ham at home – as they have been unable to in their last two matches – why they should be capable of beating any of the other sides who are still to visit the Stadium of Light this term?
It's certainly hard to make a case for them getting anything from Tottenham, Manchester City and Chelsea – their next three opponents in away games – so by the time Cardiff arrive on Wearside on April 27, Sunderland's fate could be as good as sealed. While their rivals in and around the relegation zone accumulate points, the only thing Gustavo Poyet's side are piling up is problems.
There is plenty of cause for worry in the wake of yet another home defeat, which came courtesy of goals at the start of each half from Andy Carroll and Mohamed Diame.
Adam Johnson's arrival from the substitutes' bench threatened to spark a revival, with the winger curling home superbly with 25 minutes left.
Ultimately, however, Sunderland, who admittedly should have had a first-half penalty, were incapable of seeing off a West Ham side with precious little to play for given their mid-table position. In truth, it was a fittingly tame way for hope to be extinguished. Having radically altered his formation for last week's trip to Liverpool, Poyet stuck with his new-look five-man defence despite West Ham only naming a single centre-forward in the shape of Carroll.
The ploy gave Sunderland a somewhat unbalanced look, with Phil Bardsley and Marcos Alonso enjoying plenty of space in the wing-back berths but Ki Sung-Yueng and Fabio Borini finding themselves extremely closely shackled in the central areas.
Andy Carroll celebrates his opening goal
Bardsley was the Black Cats' most dangerous attacking outlet throughout the first half, a testament to the Scotland international's work rate and energy down the flank, but hardly an ideal situation with Johnson and Emanuele Giaccherini, both natural wingers, warming the bench.
Sunderland also lacked pace and creativity throughout their side, a failing that was eventually acknowledged by Johnson's 53rd-minute introduction. Even then, however, the Wearsiders still had far too many defensive players on the field, and by that stage, they were two goals behind.
If nothing else, the naming of three centre-halves should have enabled Sunderland to negate Carroll's aerial threat from set-pieces. Less than ten minutes in, however, and the Gateshead-born striker was planting a close-range header into the back of the net.
His task could hardly have been simpler as he effortlessly rose above John O'Shea to head home Mark Noble's corner from the edge of the six-yard box.
It was the 14th goal Sunderland have conceded from set-pieces this season, a damning statistic that helps explain why they find themselves careering towards the Championship. For all their perceived weaknesses up front, the Wearsiders have been dreadful at the back for much of the season.
Given the edginess that was apparent in the build-up to kick-off, the concession of an early goal was the last thing the hosts needed with so much at stake.
An immediate response would have helped calm nerves, but when an opportunity presented itself three minutes after West Ham broke the deadlock, Lee Cattermole was found wanting.
Connor Wickham dispossessed James Tomkins down the left, and while the recalled Ki's subsequent square ball was initially intended for Fabio Borini, it rebounded fortuitously to Cattermole's feet.
The midfielder had time to steady himself – probably too much time as it turned out – but his weak side-footed effort was easily repelled by Adrian. It would be the second half before Sunderland produced anything as threatening again.
West Ham came close to doubling their lead in the intervening period, with Matt Taylor flashing a left-footed strike just past the post after bright approach play from Noble and Carroll threatening again with a header from George McCartney's looped cross.
Marcus Alonso and Stewart Downing challenge for a high ball last night
The former Newcastle striker was a threat every time the ball was delivered into the box, and while his injury record will always be a cause for concern, he might well be making a perfectly-timed push for a place in Roy Hodgson's World Cup squad.
Sunderland's build-up play was less direct, but was also far too ponderous to be effective. Nevertheless, the hosts could still count themselves unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty seven minutes before half-time.
With the ball bouncing dangerously in the box after a corner, Kevin Nolan brushed it away from O'Shea with his arm. It appeared a clear infringement, but referee Howard Webb was unmoved. On such moments, seasons are often decided.
It took just five second-half minutes for the magnitude of the decision to become obvious as West Ham doubled their lead.
Carroll was heavily involved again, holding off his opponent to chest Tomkins' long ball into Diame's path. The midfielder's shot took a heavy deflection off Santiago Vergini, and rolled almost apologetically past a motionless Vito Mannone.
Johnson's arrival for Cattermole at least provided a change in tempo, although it was the hour mark before Poyet finally abandoned his five-man defence and brought on Craig Gardner for O'Shea.
Mannone was forced to produce a fine low save to deny Stewart Downing, but Sunderland gradually gained some momentum and duly clawed their way back into the game courtesy of a wonderful passing move that culminated in a goal for Johnson.
Gardner slipped a perfectly-weighted ball between two West Ham defenders to release the former Middlesbrough winger into space, and Johnson curled a fine low strike into the bottom left-hand corner of the net.
Suddenly, Sunderland were energised, and three decent chances for an equaliser arrived within the space of three minutes.
Adrian repelled the first two, parrying Ki's swerving 20-yard strike and blocking Wickham's tame follow-up effort with his legs.
The third opportunity fell to Borini, who was released into the inside-left channel, but the Italian, who has scored a number of crucial goals this season, could only drill into the side-netting.
Substitute Adam Johnson curls in from distance to make the scoreline 1-2
More pressure brought more frustration, and there was to be no salvation from a final chance in stoppage time. Alonso crossed from the left, but Igancio Scocco's header flew harmlessly over the crossbar.