LAST week marked the start of Lent, a 40-day period in which Christians abstain from something dear to them to reaffirm their faith.

Sunderland are likely to have relinquished their Premiership status by the time Easter Day arrives but, on the evidence of yesterday's 2-1 defeat at Manchester City, their commitment to the cause cannot be questioned.

Despite slipping to their 22nd defeat of a calamitous campaign, the Black Cats have not given up the ghost.

Captain Gary Breen, though, appears to have taken leave of his senses.

After contributing to the comical defending that saw his side concede twice inside the opening ten minutes, the Sunderland skipper produced a moment of absolute madness that led to his dismissal with five minutes left.

With David James preparing to launch a long throw downfield, Breen, who had already been booked, threw both hands above his head to block the ball.

The resultant sending off was startling in its senselessness and robbed Sunderland of any prospect of a grandstand finish, following Kevin Kyle's reduction of the arrears in the 25th minute.

It also underlined the visitors' propensity for shooting themselves in the foot.

After expending considerable energy in an attempt to atone for their earlier errors, Sunderland's players were further hampered by the antics of their captain.

If one moment could summarise the feeling of helplessness that has accompanied the club's tortuous return to the top-flight it was surely the sight of an established international acting like a petulant schoolboy.

Breen's aberration aside, Sunderland had fought gamely despite an atrocious opening spell. Ultimately, though, an act of sheer stupidity and two examples of dreadful defending overshadowed all of their efforts.

That defeat appeared inevitable from very early on did not make it any less painful.

Even by their own sorry standards, conceding two goals inside the opening ten minutes represented a new nadir in a season of seemingly constant calamities.

Perhaps inevitably, the visitors were the architects of their own downfall.

Sunderland's misfiring strikers have carried the can for the club's sorry record of just two Premiership victories but, at the other end of the field, their defenders have rarely covered themselves in glory either.

The Black Cats have the worst defensive record in the Premiership - on the evidence of the first ten minutes, it is easy to see why.

Quite what Danny Collins was doing when he received the ball on the edge of his own penalty area is anyone's guess but, whatever the defender was attempting, it is unlikely to find its way into any coaching manuals in the foreseeable future.

While Georgios Samaras was quick to close him down, Collins still had ample time to clear his lines when Kelvin Davis rolled the ball into his path. Instead, the Wales international opted to turn back towards his own goal, enabling his Greek opponent to brush him aside and rob him.

The angle was hardly the most inviting, but Samaras still drilled a fierce low strike past Davis.

The goalkeeper, who could arguably have done better, was no doubt still reeling from his team-mate's inexcusable aberration.

His mood would hardly have improved when he was left similarly exposed less than 60 seconds later.

Breen was the culprit this time, standing at least two yards behind his fellow defenders and thus playing Trevor Sinclair onside as he received Claudio Reyna's long pass.

Sinclair showed commendable composure to skip inside the backtracking George McCartney, before chipping a delicate cross into Samaras' path that allowed the former Heerenveen striker to underline his goalscoring abilities with a crisp first-time volley.

One can only imagine what the watching Steve Caldwell made of his fellow defenders' failings.

Two goals down and seemingly on the ropes, Sunderland appeared ready for an embarrassing capitulation.

It would probably have come had the evergreen Sinclair not whistled a 17th-minute strike narrowly wide of the post but, instead of giving up the ghost, Mick McCarthy's men dug deep to call upon the battling qualities that have earned them at least a semblance of grudging respect this season.

With Rory Delap providing a degree of stability in centre midfield, the Black Cats eventually managed to stem the tide of Manchester City's early attacking. Gradually, they even began to feature as a footballing force themselves.

Kyle's physical presence twice unsettled former Newcastle defender Sylvain Distin but, even accounting for their improvement, there was still little warning of Sunderland's awakening when it came midway through the first half.

Julio Arca's free-kick caught the home side's defence flat and after Breen had headed back across the face of goal, Kyle was on hand to break his Premiership goalscoring duck from all of one yard.

It was the Scotsman's first goal since a Carling Cup strike against Chester in August 2004.

Perhaps more pertinently, it was also just the seventh Premiership goal scored by a Sunderland striker this season.

Almost inevitably, though, the eighth rarely looked like coming. Sunderland's second-half efforts were commendable but, as so often this season, an abundance of energy was undermined by a lack of cutting edge.

Dean Whitehead was particularly culpable in the 65th minute, stabbing wide after Nyron Nosworthy had skipped past Distin with ease.

That the full-back's cross appeared to catch the Sunderland midfielder unaware merely underlined the visitors' lack of composure in front of goal.

City's efforts were no more impressive - Vassell driving a tame low shot into Davis' arms after exposing Collins yet again - and, for the main part, the Black Cats spent the second half firmly on the front foot.

There was a brief moment of worry when Davis appeared to chop down the onrushing Micah Richards in the box, and the Sunderland goalkeeper had to be at his most alert to beat out Kiki Musampa's snapshot with eight minutes left.

Bizarrely, though, he was not the last Sunderland player to make an impression with his hands.

Breen had already been booked for a first-half altercation with Albert Riera when a moment of immense idiocy earned him a second yellow card.

It was the sorriest of ends to an afternoon that had begun just as badly.