FIRST, the good news. Sunderland’s players are beginning to muster a semblance of a fight, just as the relegation battle at the foot of the Championship is entering its most critical phase. Now, the bad. It increasingly looks as though it might already be a case of too little, too late.

Sunderland’s last three performances, against Bolton, Middlesbrough and Millwall, have been just about as good as anything they have produced all season, yet they have earned just two points and have done nothing to improve the club’s position at the bottom of the table. With three more games gone, the trapdoor remains gapingly ajar.

The Black Cats were not wanting for effort as they claimed a point at The Den, nor were they devoid of commitment. They ran, they tackled, they headed the ball to safety as Millwall launched a succession of long balls into the box. They scored a wonderful long-range goal through Bryan Oviedo, and refused to be cowed by an atmosphere that remains as intimidating as anything in the Championship.

Yet while they might have led for almost 40 minutes after Oviedo’s well-worked short-corner routine resulted in the deadlock being broken, the harsh reality is that they never really looked like claiming what would only have been a sixth league win of the season. The same had been true in the previous weekend’s Wear-Tees derby, and in the 1-0 defeat to Bolton that preceded it. Sunderland are no longer being beaten out of sight, but in the position they find themselves in, a narrow defeat is as much use as a heavy one. And a battling 1-1 draw is not much better either.

Four points adrift of safety, and now with a game less to play than Barnsley and Hull City, the two clubs currently on the right side of the drop zone, these are desperate times for Chris Coleman and his side. The time for taking solace in improved performance levels has long since passed. Points are the only things that matter, and the bottom line is that Sunderland are not acquiring enough of them. Two points from their last three outings, six from their last ten. Unless that improves dramatically, they will be plumbing the depths of League One for only the second time in their existence next season.

“The confidence is still there that we can survive,” said Oviedo, who doubled his tally for the season as he drilled home from distance to fire Sunderland into the lead. “We know we have a good team, and we know we can play well. Maybe the results have not quite been what we were wanting, but it is coming. It is just a case of continuing to make little steps, and then everything will come together as we want.

“We have played quite well in the last few games, but haven’t quite been able to convert that into winning and getting lots of points. The manager keeps saying that, first, we have to look for a good performance, and I think we are getting the performances now. We just need to take some more small steps forward.

“That will result in us winning the games because I think we have been playing well. We have been very competitive against Bolton, Middlesbrough and Millwall. I think we played well in all of those games, although maybe the results weren’t quite what we needed.”

So why are Sunderland continuing to come up short? A lack of attacking prowess is a key failing, and as they dropped deeper and deeper into their own half in the second half of Saturday’s game, the absence of a physically-imposing striker capable of holding on to the ball and asking questions of the Millwall defence was glaringly apparent.

Ashley Fletcher has offered little since joining on loan from Middlesbrough, and was brushed aside with embarrassing ease whenever Millwall’s imposing centre-halves decided to flex their muscles. It is easy to see why Coleman continues to start him though, given that Joel Asoro and Josh Maja are even more callow. Had Sunderland been able to sign a fit Jon Walters in January, they might have been able to set themselves up differently. As it is, they will have to limp through to the end of the season without a functioning leader of the line.

That places pressure on the rest of the team, and while Ovie Ejaria ran his heart out alongside Lee Cattermole in an attempt to shore up the midfield, the Liverpool loanee is not really cut out to be a defensive shield in a league as competitive and unforgiving as the Championship.

As a result, Sunderland were on the back foot throughout the second half, and while Jason Steele justified his recall ahead of Lee Camp with decent saves from Lee Gregory and Steve Morison, it was always going to be nigh-on impossible to repel Millwall’s attacking forever.

Sure enough, Sunderland’s resistance was broken with 22 minutes left as a half-cleared corner fell to Shaun Hutchinson, who stabbed home from close to the penalty spot even though Cattermole should really have cleared from the goalline. Cattermole was actually standing behind the line when Hutchinson shot, so even though the ball was directed pretty much at him, he was unable to prevent it crossing the whitewash.

“It’s all about getting into good habits,” said Coleman. “You’ve got to get into good habits and you've got to do it from the get-go of the season. It’s no good trying to play catch-up.

“I think you look at some of our good players, but once you get into a rut of losing and your performances are up and down – if you get into those bad habits they're really difficult to break.

“That's what we're trying to do. It’s all about good habits every day, and that breeds confidence. When you have it, you can nick games that are 50-50 and rather than losing it 1-0, you win it 1-0. You play with a bit more freedom, get more points and everything steamrolls in a positive way. When it goes the other way, we know what that feels like.”

Sunderland have stemmed the bleeding, but that is not the same as being able to repair the wound. Too many of their creative players remain afraid to take a risk – Aiden McGeady and Callum McManaman dropped out of Saturday’s game dramatically after making reasonably bright starts – while their defence remains far from watertight whenever it comes under a sustained period of pressure.

That is hardly a good combination, but with just 11 games left, there is no longer any time to make gradual improvements. Sunderland entertain Aston Villa tomorrow, before heading to QPR at the weekend. If they are still searching for their first win since the middle of January by the time they are leaving Loftus Road, it will be time to administer the last rites.