THIS was an afternoon when Sunderland could have done with celebrating in the Peterborough sunshine. Instead, after a weekend often billed as being crucial in promotion run-ins, the Black Cats were left deflated and despondent when the League One promotion race took a turn for the worse.

It is now advantage Barnsley, or even Portsmouth, after a pulsating finale at London Road that has left Sunderland hoping for another huge favour if they are to finish in an automatic spot come the next Bank Holiday weekend in May.

All is not lost for now, with three matches for Jack Ross’ men to play. But Sunderland, having had a top two place within their grasp before the trip to Peterborough and then again with three minutes to go, will know this was an afternoon when things slid away.

When Max Power found the bottom corner in the dying stages it looked as if Sunderland were climbing back to third and boasting a game in hand, and the scenes among the 4,000 away fans and on the pitch painted the picture of significance.

But Peterborough striker Matt Godden broke Sunderland hearts in the second minute of stoppage-time to find the same corner at the other end to secure a point for a side still in with an outside chance of a play-off spot.

After Portsmouth had managed to beat Coventry in the earlier kick-off, it was a question of how Sunderland could handle that and it looked like they were. By the time the whistle had blown, Barnsley had also collected the points to leave Ross’ team four points shy of second.

Now Sunderland, who face Portsmouth on Saturday at the Stadium of Light, know they could miss out on second even if they win their remaining matches, so something special is required if they are to avoid a play-off tussle.

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Even though Ross has tended to mix things up when faced with games close together, he opted for continuity by naming the same team that defeated Doncaster Rovers on Good Friday and it almost had the desired effect.

That was a victory that, in fact, kept the door open for Posh to climb back into the top six because of a four-point gap to make up on Rovers, and made the task harder at London Road.

If there was pressure on Peterborough, looking to close that gap, then there was even more piled on Sunderland beforehand following Portsmouth’s win, and the prospect of Ross’ men ending Easter sitting fourth if they failed to claim consecutive victories.

And after a slow opening ten minutes from the visitors, they were the side that created the most clear-cut chances and only poor finishing and excellent goalkeeping from Aaron Chapman prevented them from leading at the break.

Those, particularly a missed chance from Charlie Wyke and a well saved Jimmy Dunne header, didn’t exactly tell the whole story, because Peterborough showed plenty of attacking ambition themselves and were clearly keen to put on a show for the home support.

As soon as Marcus Maddison, the Peterborough danger-man, was wiped out by Bryan Oviedo inside two minutes the tone had been set. It was a tackle from behind that got nowhere near the ball and the Costa Rican was issued straight away with a yellow card.

Peterborough looked dangerous on the ball and often got skilful wide players Siriki Dembele and Maddison on the ball in an attempt to make things happen.

The Northern Echo:

Jon McLaughlin, in the Sunderland goal, didn’t have too many testing saves to make during that period but George Cooper did have one held and another flew over from distance late on in the half.

Chances were restricted mainly because of the strong defending from Dunne and Alim Ozturk, who stayed in the team ahead of Tom Flanagan and ex-Posh defender Jack Baldwin, even if midfield duo Lee Cattermole and Power were left demanding better distribution from the backline.

When Sunderland did get the ball down and play through the pitch, though, they did carve open the better openings, but there was no way through before the half-time whistle.

Lewis Morgan was the first to drag an effort wide from the edge of the area after he was picked out in space following a corner his first run and cross of the match down the right had earned. There was also an effort from Power for Chapman to hold from a similar distance.

The best of the opportunities were late in that half. The first one to leave the away fans scratching their heads was when Wyke was put clean through by Cattermole’s excellent incisive pass in behind after Aiden McGeady had cleverly wriggled free of his marker deep inside his own half.

With just the goalkeeper to beat, albeit with a defender closing down, Wyke appeared to get his balance all wrong as he shaped to shoot left-footed and the effort from inside ten yards shaved the side-netting rather than tested the goalkeeper.

Chapman was to be asked a serious question on the stroke of half-time though and he came up with the answer. Power’s delivery to the back post was perfect for the towering Dunne to jump above his marker to nod down towards goal.

It looked certain to cross the line but the huge band of travelling Sunderland fans behind the net were left stunned when Chapman somehow raced across to make a stunning save. When it was cleared out of the area, McGeady was then denied by the goalkeeper in the same area when he turned behind his curling effort form the edge of the area.

News must have filtered through to the players that Barnsley were on course to reclaim second by claiming a significant lead at Plymouth, so Sunderland knew they had to make such chances count after the restart to avoid Easter Monday frustration.

Peterborough started like they did in the first, on top. Once again they were unable to give McLaughlin something serious to think about between the posts, and that paved the way for Sunderland, with Cattermole hugely influential, to gain more of a foothold as the half developed.

There were forward-thinking changes by both Ross and Darren Ferguson in the final stages in a bid to get the win both required, and former Newcastle striker Ivan Toney’s introduction got Luke O’Nien in bother when he scythed the forward down from behind in the final third. A caution was the result, mainly because Cattermole was close by.

That decision was crucial because with three minutes remaining, O’Nien’s little pass inside was perfect for Power to run on to and then drill into the bottom right corner of Chapman’s net with what was Sunderland’s first shot on target of the second half.

But on an afternoon of twists and turns there was to be another, Peterborough found an extra gear and when Godden was fed the ball just inside the area he fired low inside McLaughlin’s far corner.

That was that, and now Sunderland will hope there is an even greater turnaround over the new next two weekends.