WHILE Sunderland’s weekend draw with Lincoln City did nothing to change the picture in the battle for automatic promotion, with every team in the top six in League One picking up one point, it nevertheless underlined the importance of finishing in the top two come the middle of May.

On a tense and tight afternoon, there was nothing to choose between the third-placed Black Cats and the team one place below them in the table, as had been the case when the two sides’ Papa John’s Trophy semi-final in February could only be settled by penalties.

“I think sometimes you’ve just got to respect that it was two good sides,” said Lee Johnson, as he reflected on his team’s first failure to win in six matches. The Sunderland manager was right, the game could easily have gone either way. So, just imagine how on a knife-edge things would be if Sunderland and Lincoln were meeting each other again in the play-offs in a couple of months’ time.

For all that Sunderland have strung together a hugely-impressive sequence of results since the turn of the year, the reality is that they are not that much better than the teams around them. Scramble into the top two over the course of their remaining 11 matches, and that will not matter a jot. Come up short again though, and the lottery of the play-offs will loom. And for all that Johnson would make the right noises about Sunderland entering the end-of-season shootout from a position of strength, their fate, to at least some extent, would be dependent on luck.

That is why the next 11 games are so crucial, and it is why, with Hull, Peterborough, Doncaster and Charlton all failing to win at the weekend, Saturday’s game has to go down as something of an opportunity missed.

Leading through Callum McFadzean’s first-half header, Sunderland appeared to be heading for a top-two spot. By the time erratic referee Carl Boyeson blew his full-time whistle, they were grateful for the two late saves from Lee Burge that ensured they remained in third spot, two points ahead of Lincoln. One point gained or two points lost? That will only become clear once the final tallies are known.

“We’ve probably just shaded it in terms of possession and dangerous attacks, but at the same time they’ve got real threats on the counter,” said Johnson. “They’ve got youth, they’ve got brightness and they’re a difficult side to play against because of that. They stretch you.

“We don’t like losing leads and that is disappointing. We don’t make many mistakes and it’s one mistake that’s led to the goal, one mistake in seven or eight games really.

“I’m not going to be too critical, that’s for sure. They’ve put in a massive shift over the last few weeks and while it’s human nature to look at other results, it’s nothing lost and nothing gained.”

Sunderland were the better side for most of the first half, even if Lincoln’s defenders made a decent job of shackling the in-form Charlie Wyke and preventing him from reaching the handful of dangerous crosses that were delivered by Conor McLaughlin from the right and Aiden McGeady from the left.

Callum McFadzean had a near-post shot saved by Lincoln goalkeeper Alex Palmer midway through the first half, but the full-back went one better five minutes before the break as he claimed his first league goal in a Sunderland shirt. Max Power swung over a deep cross from the right and McFadzean muscled ahead of Regan Poole before angling a deft header into the bottom corner.

“That’s what the gaffer wants from full-backs, to get in the zones,” said McFadzean. “Goochy (Lynden Gooch) tried to cross it, it came to Max and I was just the right side. I just gambled and got on the end of it.”

The Black Cats might have stamped their authority on the game had McGeady’s fiercely-hit free-kick not been parried by Palmer shortly after the hour mark, but within a minute of that save, Lincoln were claiming the equaliser that ended Sunderland’s run of 565 minutes in all competitions without conceding a goal.

As that statistic suggests, it was an uncharacteristic moment of laxness that proved their undoing, with Luke O’Nien getting himself into a poor position as he tried to deal with a looped headed ball. Callum Morton turned onto the wrong side of Sunderland’s makeshift centre-half, and drilled a low finish past a helpless Burge.

“You’ve got to make minimal mistakes against the top-six teams, and unfortunately that was probably the bit – two or three occasions they got good breaks on from our poor mistakes and unforced errors,” said Johnson. “They scored a very good goal, but unfortunately we got rolled in the box.”

Lincoln suffered a 4-0 defeat to Sunderland at Sincil Bank in December, but even on that occasion, they showed enough going forward to explain why they are part of the promotion picture. They were the more threatening side in the final 20 minutes of Saturday’s game, and would have claimed a winner had it not been for two excellent pieces of goalkeeping from Burge.

The Sunderland shot-stopper flung himself to his right to keep out a low shot from Cohen Bramall after Morgan Rogers cut the ball back into the full-back’s path, and produced an even better stop with five minutes left as he parried Rogers’ first-time effort from Poole’s low cross.

Burge briefly lost his first-team place as Johnson promoted Remi Matthews in an ill-fated experiment at Shrewsbury at the start of last month, but since then, the former Coventry keeper has barely put a foot or a glove wrong.

“I think Lee’s been excellent,” said Johnson. “Since that Shrewsbury game, when we felt it was the right time to leave him out, he came back in very quickly, and since then I think he’s been top drawer.

“As a goalkeeper, it’s really important that your defence trusts you, and I think at the moment, the communication is good and they trust him to make the big saves. Today, he’s had to make a couple of very good ones.”

With no midweek game for a change, Johnson will give his players a couple of days off to recharge physically and mentally before preparations begin for Saturday’s trip to Bristol Rovers.

There is also the likelihood of a behind-closed-doors game this week to enable the likes of Denver Hume, Bailey Wright, Tom Flanagan and Jordan Jones to build up their match sharpness ahead of the Easter programme, which will see Sunderland take on Oxford and Peterborough in the space of four days.

“We’re not thinking about what we have to do to get out of the division – we’re just thinking about cracking on with the next performance,” said Johnson. “What do we need to do? What were the strong points in our performance here, and what are the bits we need to work on?

“The good thing is we have got that week now to work on things. This is really the next phase, it’s the sprint after this game. It’s not a massive rest, but it gives us an opportunity to work on the training ground and we have not had too many opportunities like that since I came in. We’ll go to Bristol Rovers fully prepared, and hope to put in another energetic, bright, busy performance.”