WITH automatic promotion now officially out of the window, Sunderland’s thoughts turn towards the play-offs. Forget winning them for now, though. First and foremost, the Black Cats have to ensure that their end-of-season implosion does not result in them missing out on the top six altogether.

That remains an unlikely scenario with Sunderland boasting a five-point cushion to seventh position, with Portsmouth’s last-minute concession against Accrington having played into the Black Cats’ hands. Sunderland need to win one of their final two matches to guarantee a play-off place, but at the moment, it is hard to see where their next success is going to come from.

Last night’s defeat to Blackpool extended the Wearsiders’ winless run to seven matches, a calamitous downturn in form at the worst possible time. They have suffered two defeats to Blackpool in the space of two-and-a-half weeks, which hardly augurs well given the way the League One table is currently looking. If the play-offs were to take place tomorrow, Sunderland would be lining up against the Seasiders.

This month’s double-header resulted in two 1-0 defeats, with the games following a similar pattern. Sunderland were just about the better side in both matches, but struggled to carve out chances. Blackpool were well-organised without being particularly threatening, but conjured up winning goals from pretty much nowhere to settle things. At Bloomfield Road, Luke Garbutt’s deflected strike proved decisive. Last night, Sullay Kaikai’s 25-yard bolt from the blue condemned the Black Cats to defeat.

With his team’s form nosediving, Lee Johnson finds himself with questions to answer. Can he rely on Luke O’Nien to continue alongside Bailey Wright, or does he need to rush Conor McLaughlin and Tom Flanagan back into the fray, even if they are not quite 100 per cent fit? Does Grant Leadbitter need to start every game, or is Carl Winchester an able deputy? Where should Lynden Gooch play, and is he a better bet than Jordan Jones? Is it time to offer an olive branch to Chris Maguire?

Seven-game winless runs tend to raise awkward questions, and having had something of an extended honeymoon period following his appointment as Phil Parkinson’s successor in December, Johnson now finds himself having to earn his corn. Over the next five weeks, he will either be the man that finally gets Sunderland promoted or he will join Jack Ross and Parkinson on the list of Black Cats nearly-men. Given the need to get the club back into the Championship, it really is that cut and dry.

On the evidence of last night’s drab display, Sunderland’s prospects of improving their dreadful play-off record have dimmed dramatically in the last few weeks. Blackpool were every bit as insipid as their opponents on an evening when the absence of supporters felt like an act of mercy, but they won the game, strengthening their own play-off claims. Sunderland toiled to precious little effect, with their reliance on Wyke becoming ever more pronounced. If they make it to the play-offs, whoever they line up against will feel that if they can keep Wyke quiet, they can silence the whole of Sunderland’s attacking threat.

The Black Cats rarely threatened last night, and on the handful of occasions they looked like coming up with a goal, Blackpool goalkeeper Chris Maxwell stood in their way. There have been some dreadful games at the Stadium of Light in the last few years, but this was right up – or rather down – there in terms of a lack of entertainment.

With neither side displaying even a modicum of urgency or attacking intent, it was the 24th minute before either team was able to conjure up anything that even resembled an effort at goal. Leadbitter played a long ball over the top of the Blackpool defence, and Aiden O’Brien flicked out a foot to prod the ball straight at Maxwell. In truth, it was barely even a half-chance, but for the whole of the opening half-hour, it was pretty much as good as things got.

Sunderland were tight and well-organised – a step forward from Saturday’s chaotic 3-3 draw with Accrington – but their defensive resilience came at the expense of any kind of attacking fluidity.

Wyke angled a stooped header over the crossbar after Denver Hume crossed shortly after the half-hour mark, but with Blackpool playing with five at the back, a change of formation from this month’s game between the two sides at Bloomfield Road, the Black Cats struggled to get any time or space in the final third.

Blackpool were no more threatening, although they might have caused problems five minutes before the interval. Sunderland’s defence failed to deal with a routine long ball, but while Jerry Yates had plenty of space as he swivelled to fire in a half-volley from 20 yards, his effort flew straight at Lee Burge, who was able to make a simple save.

Johnson’s response to the Black Cats’ laboured first-half performance was a half-time change of formation, with Max Power tucking in to accompany Wright and O’Nien in a back three, and Gooch and Hume filling the wing-back roles.

Power came close to scoring four minutes after the interval, but while the Blackpool defence cleared a corner into his path on the corner of the 18-yard box, his side-footed effort was turned round the post by Maxwell.

At least that was the signal for an increase in urgency from Sunderland at the start of the second half, with the formation switch enabling the hosts to commit more players into the Blackpool half.

McGeady came close with a shot from an acute angle that was deflected over the crossbar, and when Leadbitter picked out Wyke from the resultant corner, Sunderland’s leading scorer powered in a downward header that Maxwell clawed away with an excellent save.

The Wearsiders were building up a head of steam at that stage, but when the deadlock was broken in the 56th minute, the opening goal came at the opposite end of the field.

There seemed little danger when Kaiaki picked up a loose ball after the Sunderland defence cleared a corner, but from 25 yards, the Blackpool forward cracked a sensational strike into the top corner. It was the type of goal you tend to concede when things are going against you, but while the hosts were left helpless by the quality of Kaikai’s finish, their lack of effectiveness to that point meant they were able susceptible to one moment of brilliance. The fear is that the same might be true in the play-offs unless the standard of their play improves.

The home side’s attempts to get back into the game were somewhat ragged, although the appearance of Ross Stewart at least ensured an increased aerial threat in the Blackpool box.

Stewart nodded a 73rd-minute free-kick back across goal to enable Wyke to prod a first-time volley goalwards, but the impressive Maxwell made a smart reflex save.

Blackpool’s goalkeeper was in fine form all night, and he capped an excellent display with another superb save in stoppage time. Wyke thought he had scored with a header, but Maxwell clawed the ball away.