Sunderland saw three key decisions go in their favour against Norwich but could still not claim all three points at the Stadium of Light despite playing against 10 men for an hour of their Premier League contest with their lack of creativity and defensive fragility a real concern
By Rob Parrish - Follow me on Twitter @skysportsrobp
Last Updated: 17/03/13 5:39pm
The performance of referee Chris Foy and his assistants is sure to come under the spotlight after Sunderland's 1-1 draw with 10-man Norwich at the Stadium of Light, but the men with the real questions to answer should be Martin O'Neill and his players after another miserable afternoon.
The Black Cats have now taken just three points from their last seven games to slide down the table towards the relegation places, with forthcoming fixtures against Manchester United, Chelsea and Newcastle offering little respite, particularly given their inability to break down the Canaries and some worrying lapses in defence.
Full-back Danny Rose returned to the Sunderland starting line-up after a spell out with a hamstring injury, with the on-loan Tottenham man one of three changes to the side which lost at QPR. Carlos Cuellar and David Vaughan also came in, with Jack Colback, Titus Bramble and Alfred N'Diaye the trio to miss out.
Norwich boss Chris Hughton sprang a surprise with his starting XI as Grant Holt was only named among the substitutes, with Wes Hoolahan joining Kei Kamara up front - a decision which was justified as the duo combined to open the scoring. Elliott Bennett came in for the injured Anthony Pilkington.
Sunderland began the day with a 4-4-2 formation, with Danny Graham and Steven Fletcher combining in attack and Adam Johnson and Stephane Sessegnon tasked with providing width from the flanks. Sessegnon was switched into a free role after the interval, then pushed into attack when Graham departed, but failed to provide any real creativity for the Black Cats.
Norwich also began with a 4-4-2 formation, but were forced to sacrifice goalscorer Hoolahan with only 30 minutes gone when goalkeeper Mark Bunn was dismissed for handling outside his box - the first of three key calls for referee Foy on a busy afternoon for the match officials. They kept their shape well and Sunderland were unable to test Lee Camp with any regularity.
Sunderland's first change was forced upon them when Cuellar limped out of the action and Bramble came on in his place, while the introduction of James McClean for Graham and then Connor Wickham for Adam Johnson had little or no impact for Sunderland, as they looked short of ideas and inspiration against Norwich's well-drilled defence.
Norwich had little option but to withdraw one of their front two after Bunn saw red, with Kamara's physical presence offering more of a threat than Hoolahan. The January signing then made way for Holt midway through the second period with the captain's heavy touch after getting away from Bramble seeing a second-half chance go begging. Steven Whittaker came on late on for Robert Snodgrass.
Rose gave Sunderland a better balance in defence on his return from injury and also offers a threat when getting forward. He was fortunate to avoid conceding a penalty in the second half when Russell Martin's cross struck his arm in the area.
Martin was named man of the match for his display in the dogged Norwich defence who dealt comfortably with what Sunderland had to throw at them once the visitors were reduced to 10 men, with the home team's wide men unable to get beyond the full-back.
Match official Foy had a very busy afternoon with three key decisions which all went in favour of the home side with Bunn seeing red, Sebastien Bassong penalised for handball when the ball rolled down his arm and then Danny Rose escaping a similar fate when he handled in the area with only a free-kick awarded on the line. Bunn was furious, but the ball hit the underside of his raised arm as he raced from his box, so the call was correct. Bassong may also feel aggrieved, but the assistant had an excellent view and there was contact. The officials, however, did make an error when they failed to give a penalty against Rose.
Sunderland are all at sea at present and are being sucked closer and closer to relegation danger. They lack conviction, creativity and any real threat going forward, with Camp's relative lack of action testimony to their impotence even against 10 men. At the back, they allowed Kamara a free header from six yards before Hoolahan scored, while Holt could have snatched the points after a blunder from Bramble. The fixture list does not make good reading for the Black Cats and they face a real fight to stay in the Premier League.
Norwich only have one win to show from their last 10 games but the defensive resilience they showed against Sunderland should give them heart for the remainder of the season. With 34 points already on the board and eight games remaining, they will hope to reach the 40 mark as soon as possible. Wigan, Swansea, Reading and Stoke are four of their next five opponents, with opportunities in those games to secure Premier League football for another season. Hughton's decision to praise his players after the match rather than complain about the officials should also be applauded.