Sunderland defied by Crystal Palace in stalemate

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The bright, balmy spring sunshine that recently warmed Wearside had given way to slate grey cloud and a pronounced wind chill factor. It was a day when hoods were pulled over heads and scarves wrapped tightly round necks. In other words the backdrop to Sunderland's latest lost opportunity was suitably grim.

Eight bookings, two underemployed goalkeepers and a horrible lack of creativity were testament not only to the negativity of Tony Pulis's gameplan but the shortage of attacking guile that threatens to leave Sunderland sinking into the Championship.

If a point represents a helpful step along the road to Crystal Palace's escape from relegation a surfeit of commendable effort was never going to be enough to offer Gus Poyet's 19th-placed side the victory they desperately needed ahead of a daunting run in.

"We tried everything but we couldn't score," said Sunderland's creditably sanguine manager. "I'm calm because the players gave everything. It's not going to be easy to stay up now, it's going to be tight but we still have a chance."

Pulis appeared appreciably happier. "This was a must-win game for Sunderland and a must-not-lose game for us," he said. My players gave everything and I'm very pleased."

Poyet, who dubbed the encounter "bigger" than the club's recent Capital One Cup final against Manchester City, cancelled a planned squad day out at Cheltenham this week and his players responded by starting at a deceptively high tempo.

Dominating early possession amid swirling wind, Sunderland placed Palace firmly on the back foot and should really have scored when Adam Johnson's splendid left-foot cross from the right found Steven Fletcher who headed wastefully over the bar after failing to connect properly.

Quite apart from proving niggly opponents well versed in spoiling tactics, Palace reminded everyone precisely why they are the Premier League's lowest scorers but Sunderland, too, struggled to create more than half-chances. Although Ki Sung-yueng saw a well executed volley swerve tantalisingly wide after latching onto a clearance, Julian Speroni was rarely troubled.

Advancing sporadically from deep, Thomas Ince seemed Pulis's brightest spark but he met his match in Wes Brown. It spoke volumes that the nearest Palace came to scoring was when Vito Mannone tripped over a divot while making a clearance.

Even more worrying for Poyet was the sight of Fletcher – recently advised that he required achilles tendon surgery – limping heavily as half-time approached. The Scotland striker will have a fresh ankle injury scanned.

Fletcher was replaced by Jozy Altidore, prompting groans among some Sunderland fans in the near 44,000-strong crowd. Altidore can hardly be described as prolific – his critics label the United States striker "Dozy Anti-Score" – but when he seamlessly controlled an awkwardly dropping long ball it took a fabulous save from Speroni to prevent his well struck shot breaking the impasse.

Reprieved, Palace simply became even more difficult to deconstruct, tingeing Sunderland's attempt to get behind their defence with an increasing air of desperation. Phil Bardsley's am-dram, inevitably forlorn, attempt to win a penalty courtesy of a most unconvincing dive left the home right-back fortunate not to be booked.

When, a little later, Borini, Poyet's best individual, watched a ferocious shot rebound off the woodwork it appeared entirely emblematic of his team's afternoon, proving the cue for supporters to start streaming towards the exits with collars pulled high and heads bowed. Those that remained greeted the final whistle with boos. Two weeks after their spirited Wembley defeat to City, Sunderland have returned to earth with the hardest of bumps.

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