No team had scored fewer goals at home in the Premier League than Sunderland; no team had scored fewer away than Crystal Palace. Add in a blustery wind and a threadbare pitch and it was never going to be pretty. Still, even given the mitigating circumstances, this was a game of astonishing ugliness, full of misplaced passes and aimless punts. With Fulham and West Bromwich Albion winning, this was a good day for neither side.
Sunderland did climb above Cardiff City to third bottom but they are three points behind Palace and West Brom and four points behind Norwich and Swansea City; Norwich have played three games more than Sunderland.
They had the better of the game, controlled possession – or perhaps, more accurately, miscontrolled it least – and created the better chances, but other than one Fabio Borini effort nine minutes from time when, laid in by Wes Brown, he thumped a shot against the angle of post and bar, they rarely looked like scoring.
“We tried everything,” said Gus Poyet, who insisted he was “calm”. “That’s what we are. That’s the team that we had, the players that we’ve got and the way we have to play. We didn’t score – that’s the most difficult part of the game. The players gave everything they’ve got. If it’s enough, we will see.”
Steven Fletcher, named in the starting line-up, was as ineffectual as he has been all season, again and again opting to flick at centres rather than really attacking them. On the one occasion he really did drive decisively at goal, he was 40 yards out and would have been far better off sliding a ball outside him to Ki Sung-yeung.
Although Poyet said the Scotland striker had twisted his ankle, it was little surprise when he was replaced at half time by Jozy Altidore, who at least added brawn and did have one effort on the turn well saved by Julian Speroni, but the overall effect of the USA international’s introduction was to encourage Sunderland to go long, which played into Palace’s hands.
Palace could even have won it in injury time, Kagisho Dikgacoi blasting wide after the ball had broken to him 10 yards out.
“It was a must-not-lose game for us,” said the Palace manager Tony Pulis. “The last two away games we’ve kept two clean sheets and that’s what we’ve worked on. We haven’t got the quality of some teams but the lads have got big hearts.”
All season Sunderland have clung to the hope that they have winnable home games to come – against Norwich, West Ham United, Cardiff City, West Brom and Swansea – but the problem for them at the moment is that no home game seems winnable: Sunderland have not won any of their last four matches in all competitions, and have won just three at home all season. From a creative point of view, if Adam Johnson does not play well, Sunderland do not play well. Things have improved since Poyet took over, but they may not have improved enough.
Meanwhile, bottom club Fulham gave their chances of avoiding relegation a boost with a 1-0 win at home to Newcastle United that kept them four points from safety.
Ashkan Dejagah’s swerving 68th-minute shot crept beneath visiting goalkeeper Tim Krul to consign Newcastle to defeat on the day manager Alan Pardew began a seven-game ban for headbutting Hull midfielder Meyler.
West Bromwich Albion manager Pepe Mel tasted victory for the first time as an 85th-minute Youssouf Mulumbu goal saw his side complete a 2-1 comeback win at Swansea City that sent them three points clear of the drop zone.
Sunderland remain in the bottom three after a 0-0 draw at home to Crystal Palace, but they moved above Cardiff City, who fell to an injury-time Seamus Coleman strike in a cruel 2-1 defeat at Everton.
Goals from Morgan Schneiderlin, Rickie Lambert, Jay Rodriguez and Sam Gallagher saw Southampton beat Norwich City 4-2, while Peter Odemwingie scored twice as Stoke City sank West Ham United 3-1 at the Britannia Stadium.