SUNDERLAND dropped into the relegation zone for only the second time this season, despite picking up a point at Stoke City.
The Black Cats fell to third bottom in the table, a point adrift of safety, after wins for fellow strugglers Leicester and Hull sucked Dick Advocaat’s men into the bottom three.
That came despite a determined effort from Sunderland at the Britannia Stadium in a hugely absorbing 1-1 draw, where the Black Cats couldn’t profit from their second half chances.
Connor Wickham’s first minute goal had given Sunderland the dream start, but after Jermain Defoe had spurned a golden chance to double the advantage, Charlie Adam drew Stoke level with a scorching shot.
Stoke deserved to be level after a 100mph 45 minutes, but in a more sedate second half, Sunderland had the better of it, yet Defoe, Wickham and Billy Jones couldn’t take the chances which came their way.
In the end, Sunderland were indebted to two stunning saves from Costel Pantilimon to earn a share of the spoils.
Will Buckley and Sebastian Coates came into the Sunderland starting XI after Dick Advocaat opted against selecting Adam Johnson.
Advocaat had indicated that Johnson was available for selection, despite being charged with three counts of sexual activity with a child under 16 and one of grooming.
But Johnson did not travel with the rest of the Sunderland squad for the clash in the Potteries, with Buckley taking the place of the injured Steven Fletcher - the winger’s first start since January.
Buckley’s inclusion was one of two changes to the starting XI, with on-loan Liverpool centre-half Coates making only his fourth Premier League start for Sunderland in place of fellow South American Santiago Vergini.
Youngsters George Honeyman and Liam Agnew were both on the bench, but surprisingly, Under-21 team-mate Duncan Watmore did not travel with the squad.
Stoke made just one change, with Charlie Adam replacing Glenn Whelan in central midfield.
Sunderland got off to the dream start when they broke the deadlock with just a minute on the clock.
Buckley got past Erik Pieters to the right-hand by-line and sent in a deflected cross which was spilled horribly by Asmir Begovic right into the path of Wickham, who managed to bundle it in the net.
It prompted a ferociously paced start to the game, with Costel Pantilimon forced into a smart save in the 10th minute after a nice move from the Potters saw Mame Diouf collect Stephen Ireland’s back-heel and feed Jonathan Walters on the far right-hand side of the area.
Patrick van Aanholt was sluggish in closing Walters down and the Ireland striker hit an angled shot which Pantilimon kept out low to his right.
Five minutes later, Stoke were a whisker away from an equaliser when Charlie Adam’s long ball forward fell into the path of Ireland, 20 yards out, whose volley deflected off Coates and flew inches wide of the post with Pantilimon stranded.
Adam then whistled a left-foot shot a couple of feet over the bar from 25 yards.
Stoke were on top, but Sunderland spurned a golden opportunity to double their advantage in the 25th minute when Lee Cattermole produced a stunning long ball over the top with the outside of his right boot.
Philipp Wollscheid missed the interception leaving Jermain Defoe in behind the Potters back-line, but the striker’s first touch was poor, sent him too wide and he could only fire a right-foot shot into the side netting.
Sunderland paid for that miss two minutes later when Marko Arnautovic laid the ball back to Adam, just inside the area, and the midfielder hit an unstoppable shot with his right foot which rocketed into the far top corner.
Stoke remained in the ascendancy, with Adam firing a couple of feet over the bar from the edge of the area five minutes before the interval.
HALF-TIME Stoke 1 Sunderland 1
Begovic made a comfortable save two minutes after the restart when Jordi Gomez met van Aanholt’s pull-back with a scuffed left foot shot that the Stoke keeper gathered to his left.
Defoe had another presentable chance in the 52nd minute when Wickham fed him down the right-hand channel of the area, but the striker’s first-time shot was straight at Begovic, who spooned it behind.
The game was being played at a far more sedate pace and that suited Sunderland, with Wickham denied by a stunning last-gasp challenge from Ryan Shawcross on the hour mark, before hooking the loose ball harmlessly wide.
Billy Jones then spurned another glorious chance in the 63rd minute when he charged into the box, but with the goal at his mercy eight yards out, his shot was deflected wide off Shawcross.
Jonathan Walters then headed over the bar from six yards moments later after meeting Arnautovic’s left wing cross.
There was an equally staggering chance which went begging at the other end in the 70th minute when Sunderland completely missed Adam’s inswinging free-kick from the right and it landed for Diouf, inside the six yard box.
Diouf chested it down and let fly from four yards out, but Pantilimon somehow managed to divert it over the bar.
Pantilimon then produced another stunning save with three minutes to go when Adam let fly with a left-foot drive from 20 yards that the Sunderland keeper managed to tip around the post at full-stretch.
FULL-TIME Stoke 1 Sunderland 1
STOKE: Begovic, Cameron (Bardsley 87), Shawcross, Wollscheid, Pieters, Nzonzi, Adam, Walters (Odemwingie 80), Ireland, Arnautovic, Diouf (Crouch 75). Subs not used: Butland, Whelan, Wilson, Sidwell. Booked: Diouf (58)
SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon, Jones, O’Shea, Coates, van Aanholt, Gomez, Cattermole, Rodwell, Buckley (Graham 46), Wickham, Defoe. Subs not used: Mannone, Bridcutt, Reveillere, Vergini, Honeyman, Agnew. Booked: Cattermole (18), O’Shea (62), Jones (80)