Defoe holds his nerve to salvage precious point for Sunderland
Stoke City 1-1 Sunderland
His team-mates demonstrated their gratitude by taking it in turns to kiss Jermain Defoe on the head in the moments after the final whistle, and as Sam Allardyce marched towards the tunnel Sunderland's manager could be seen beating his chest with his fist and telling the supporters massed in the away end not to give up.
Once the euphoria passed, however, it was difficult to know whether the positives outweighed the negatives for Sunderland. In the cold light of day, they may end up regarding this 1-1 draw with Stoke as a missed opportunity because, before Defoe sent a surge of belief and relief through the Sunderland ranks by ramming his penalty past Jakob Haugaard in the fourth minute of stoppage-time, Allardyce had spent most of the afternoon wearing the expression of a man who had discovered he was going on a camping holiday with Arsene Wenger and Rafael Benitez this summer.
He had witnessed a choked, spluttering display from his players - Allardyce blamed it on nerves - and Sunderland had played with none of the adventure that might have been anticipated from a side embroiled in a frantic three-way battle to stay out of the Championship.
They slipped into the bottom three because of Newcastle's 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace, and although they have a game in hand on their north-east rivals, meaning that their fate is still in their own hands, it cannot be guaranteed that Sunderland possess the guile required to beat Chelsea, Everton and Watford in their final three games, given that they have now drawn six of their past eight matches.
They knew that a victory would keep them in 17th place in the table, regardless of how Norwich and Newcastle fared against Arsenal and Palace respectively, yet Sunderland were unambitious to a baffling extent against potentially fragile opponents in the first half and, until Geoff Cameron brought Defoe down in the 94th minute, were bereft of inspiration after falling behind to Marko Arnautovic's goal.
Sunderland's lack of incision during the first half was summed up by Allardyce storming into his technical area to remonstrate with left-back Patrick van Aanholt for shooting straight at Haugaard from 18 yards instead of playing in Wahbi Khazri. The visiting side were laboured and unimaginative in possession, guilty of dwelling on the ball in midfield, over-hitting crosses and sending too many long passes up towards Defoe.
Sunderland's lone striker was dangerous on the fleeting occasions when he received the ball to his feet. Defoe has scored 14 of the side's 40 Premier League goals, but Allardyce's team did little to test Stoke, whose defence had been breached 12 times in their previous three matches.
Stoke were the more enterprising side for long spells, despite the sense that their season is drifting towards an unsatisfactory conclusion, and created the clearest opportunities in the first half. Peter Crouch went close with two headers and Arnautovic blazed over after fine work from Giannelli Imbula.
After the break, Allardyce ditched his 4-1-4-1 system and moved Fabio Borini alongside Defoe, yet the change in formation failed to produce the breakthrough Sunderland so desperately craved. Instead their task became even harder when they fell behind after 50 minutes.
Charlie Adam picked out Crouch with a high cross from the left and he beat Younes Kaboul and nodded the ball down for Arnautovic, who shook off Lamine Kone before driving a low volley under Sunderland goalkeeper Vito Mannone. Allardyce was furious, arguing that Crouch had pushed Kaboul in the back. "I was happy to accept a point today - that's a point gained rather than two points lost," he said. "Our performance wasn't the best.
"My problem was I think it [Defoe's penalty] could have been the winner for us because I don't think Stoke's goal should have stood," he added, before criticising the officials for failing to spot an earlier handball by Cameron in the Stoke area. "Defoe tells me he couldn't believe the referee didn't give it."
Referee Craig Pawson disagreed on both counts, and the bigger problem for Sunderland was that Newcastle were winning. Defoe aimed two shots too high from promising positions and Sunderland appeared to have run out of ideas long before the board went up to show four minutes of stoppage-time.
Stoke were pressing for a second and, as the minutes ticked away, Imbula raced through and shot wide.
That spurred Sunderland on and when Yann M'Vila found Defoe just inside the Stoke area, he was fouled by Cameron after a clever turn, getting back up to send Haugaard the wrong way from the spot.
For all Sunderland's togetherness and defiance, however, there is going to have to be a vast improvement in their final three matches for them to stay up.
Sunday Indo Sport