SUNDERLAND understandably regard getting to Wembley once this season as a fantastic achievement. Getting there twice, however, would be a completely different matter.

The shadow of the play-offs has been looming large for a while now, but the prospect of missing out on automatic promotion intensified a little further at the weekend as more ground was lost. Sunderland trail second-placed Barnsley by four points, and while they continue to have a game in hand, it is surely now imperative they at least avoid defeat at Oakwell tomorrow. To do that, though, they will have to improve markedly from their lacklustre showing against Wycombe.

Amid all the acrimonious talk of dreadful refereeing, spoiling tactics and touchline tangles, the paucity of Sunderland’s performance at Adams Park has been somewhat overlooked. Duncan Watmore’s stoppage-time equaliser might have salvaged something from a chaotic afternoon, but for more than 90 minutes, this was just about as bad as the Black Cats have been all season.

Outmuscled, outthought and outmanoeuvred when it came to mastering the footballing dark arts, Sunderland’s players were unable to impose their preferred style on a Wycombe team who hassled and harried them into submission. It is all very well adopting the common refrain that teams repeatedly lift themselves when they face Sunderland – if you want to assert your dominance in a division where you are undoubtedly the biggest scalp, you have to be both good enough and strong enough to make your superiority tell. On Saturday, as they failed to record a single effort on goal until the 85th minute, the Wearsiders were neither.

As Jack Ross rightly acknowledged after the final whistle, scrambling something when you are decidedly off-key is not a bad skill to have. Sunderland have still scored in every league game this season, have still not been beaten since just before Christmas, and are still guaranteed to finish in the top two if they win their remaining 11 matches.

Perhaps their weekend display was nothing more than a blip. That proved to be the case when they threw in a similarly sloppy display at Burton in September.

Ross has some food for thought as he ponders tomorrow’s line-up though, with some of his previous selection certainties now looking a little less cast-iron. Sunderland’s defence malfunctioned repeatedly at the weekend, with Tom Flanagan and Jimmy Dunne struggling to deal with Alex Samuel’s relentless running and the entire team looking vulnerable whenever a set-piece was hurled into the box. The midfield failed to exert any kind of authority in the face of some feverish, and occasionally over-zealous, tackling. And in attack, Will Grigg looked something of a little boy lost as Wycombe’s imposing defenders towered over him.

“You always know these games are going to be very difficult,” said Jon McLaughlin, whose crucial second-half save from Matt Bloomfield prevented a bad day from becoming worse. “They are very effective at what they do, their brand of football, how they go about games.

“They make sure they eke out every advantage that they can. If you’re not at it, and your performance isn't exactly what it needs to be, then that’s what happens. You come unstuck, and in the first half you saw that.

“The conditions, the intensity of their players, it was a big day for their club. It meant we were on the back foot and by not getting in at 0-0, which would have been a good platform for us, it made things very difficult.”

Sunderland’s hopes of making it to the interval unscathed would have been severely dented in the opening 20 minutes had Luke Bolton not somehow stabbed wide when he was completely unmarked at the back post from Nathan Tyson’s cross, but the Black Cats were not as fortunate when they were cut open again ten minutes before the break.

Lewis Morgan was caught loitering in possession in his own half, Grant Leadbitter was unable to prevent Dominic Gape breaking away from him, and Paris Cowan-Hall was left with the easy task of squaring for Samuel to sweep home.

Flanagan headed Leadbitter’s free-kick against the crossbar at the start of the second half, but Sunderland continued to lack fluency and their hopes of a late equaliser looked to have gone when Dunne directed a close-range header straight at Ryan Allsop.

Watmore equalised in stoppage time, slamming home the rebound after Allsop failed to hold Leadbitter’s long-range effort, but the drama did not stop there.

George Honeyman’s desire to stop the Wycombe bench time-wasting sparked a brawl that spilled on to the pitch, with the Sunderland skipper receiving a straight red card along with Tyson, who had also been substituted. Marcus Bean was also sent off in stoppage time after felling Watmore with an especially crude challenge.

“It was a difficult day for the referee, but he gave himself some problems by getting too involved in what was going on around him,” said McLaughlin. “It just riles people up, the fourth official can sort those things.

“It creates an atmosphere that doesn’t need to be there. I think ultimately it was just waiting for something to spark and it was all going to go up, exactly as it did.”