Before the game, Mauricio Pochettino claimed it would be ‘a big battle’ and that proved to be the case, in a contest which came to life in the second half.
Saints had the better of a goalless first half, with the best of the chances falling the way of Lambert who had a low shot saved by the impressive Simon Mignolet, whilst Lallana also scuffed a strike wide, as only one side were in the match.
There was a sense of injustice as Sunderland got their noses infront in the 68th minute. The breakthrough strike was even deflected on its way past Artur Boruc, as Saints looked to the heavens.
However, the double substitution made in the aftermath of that goal, proved pivotal to the visitors’ fortunes as James Ward-Prowse and Jason Puncheon combined for the latter to hook home at the second attempt for a priceless draw on Wearside.
The result all-but confirms Saints’ place in the Barclays Premier League for another season, despite going a fifth game without a win. If Wigan were to beat Arsenal on Tuesday, it would still take a swing of eleven goals to drag Pochettino’s side back into trouble.
Sunderland: Mignolet, Bardsley, Rose, Cuellar, O’Shea, N’Diaye, Larsson (Vaughan 74), Colback, McClean (Wickham 46), Johnson, Graham. Subs (not used): Westwood, Kilgallon, Mangane, Marrs, Mandron
Saints: Boruc, Clyne, Fonte, Hooiveld, Shaw, Cork (Ward-Prowse 72), Schneiderlin, S. Davis, Lallana (Puncheon 72), Rodriguez, Lambert. Subs (not used): K. Davis, Yoshida, Forren, Mayuka, De Ridder.
Referee: Mike Dean
Morgan Schneiderlin returned to the side after recovering from the dead leg which ruled him out of the game at Tottenham. The Frenchman replaced the injured Guly, in the only change made by Mauricio Pochettino.
Hosts Sunderland took kick-off, with Saints in their changed strip of yellow and blue, attacking the end housing the travelling supporters.
There was a fast pace start to the game despite the overcast and rainswept conditions.
Saints, however, appeared to settle quickest, winning a fourth minute corner when Luke Shaw got the better of Phil Bardsley. The resulting set piece was swung in by Lallana, but collected by Simon Mignolet as the Black Cats keeper got his first touch of the ball.
The visitors continued to make a bright start with Cork and Lallana combining for the former to win a free-kick which the skipper delivered to the back post, though Lambert couldn’t quite bring the ball under control as he met it.
In the ninth minute, Saints won another corner after further pressing forced Mignolet into passing the ball out of play under pressure from Lallana, which brought the first bit of animation from Paolo Di Canio on the sidelines, as his team had struggled to get out of the blocks in the opening exchanges.
The support for the hosts remained strong however, not only in the stands, but in the air too, as a banner attached to a helicopter circulated the Stadium of light with a message of support for the Black Cats boss, whose side were in need of a lift.
Pochettino’s men were awarded their third corner of the match on 18 minutes, forcing the hosts to twice clear their lines as Shaw attempted to rekindle the initial set piece.
Danny Rose attempted a break for the home side, but Nathaniel Clyne made an impressive block on his opposite number to deny him from troubling Artur Boruc’s penalty area.
More wasteful passing from Sunderland saw groans from the home supporters creep in, which were briefly silenced when Alfred N’Diaye burst through the middle, but as with their previous advances on goal, the move lacked nay penetration of the Saints backline.
On 28 Lambert got the first clear shot of the game on target when he tested Mignolet with a controlled low volley, which the Belgian stopper got down to in plenty of time to make a relatively comfortable save.
That stop preceded heavy pressure from the visitors with three corners won in quick succession. The first one of those proved the most testing with Rodriguez seeing his shot cleared from inside the six yard box after a lay-off from Schneiderlin.
Another good move from the visitors saw Lallana almost profit from a Steven Davis knockdown, but the skipper’s scuffed volley trickled wide of the left post, as Mignolet breathed a sigh of relief.
It was not until the 39th minute that the hosts showed any real intent, but they did so by winning two corners after Jack Colback had got the better of Cork. Fonte had to be alert to clear the first set piece, but the second led to a nervier moment when Black Cats’ skipper John O’Shea’s header down was struck tamely by Adam Johnson at Boruc.
At the other end, Lambert had two bites of the cherry from a Davis through-ball, with the latter effort – a scuffed swipe – almost embarrassing Mignolet who almost let the ball run through his legs, as he collected it at the second attempt.
Right at the end of the half, Steven Davis charged down a shot on the edge of the box before sprinting up the field to create Saints’ last chance of the half, which forced Mignolet to punch clear as Rodriguez tried to follow up.
Half Time: Sunderland 0-0 Saints
Sunderland introduced striker Connor Wickham for the second 45, with the youngster replacing James McClean, in an attacking move by Di Canio which was greeted by a chorus of approval from the home supporters.
The hosts hoped that the switch would give them the lift they needed for a big second half performance, but they were nearly caught out by Saints’ first venture forward of the new half when Luke Shaw advanced into the area to cross towards Lambert, but Mignolet cleared the danger.
Saints won their first corner of the new half on 51 when Rodriguez’s shot was deflected behind. The resulting set piece almost worked out for the frontman though who connected to Davis’s corner with a header which forced Mignolet into a low diving save.
As a spectacle, the contest had picked up beyond recognition as both teams showed a clear determination to get what looked as though would be an all-important first goal of the game.
Lambert’s well-measured pass almost released Rodriguez into the box, but Carlos Cuellar intervened. Rodriguez saw another header saved by Mignolet, as the match approached the hour mark, with the visitors still seeming the more likely to score.
However, it had become a more fiercely contested battle all over the park, with Saints grateful to Shaw for bailing out the visitors on a handful of occasions.
Then, on 68, the moment Saints had been dreading arrived, as the Black Cats opened the scoring with a goal they had barely threatened. Phil BARDSLEY hit a cross/shot which appeared to take a deflection on its way into the area, which enabled the ball to fly past Boruc for a bolt out of the blue which left Pochettino’s men rocking.
Saints responded with a double substitution on 72 minutes as Jason Puncheon and James Ward-Prowse were introduced for Lallana and Cork respectively.
David Vaughan replaced Sebastian Larsson prior to a Sunderland free-kick which took place with Shaw off the field, but Saints cleared their lines effectively.
And, in the following move, Saints were back on level terms as the substitutes combined for an equaliser. 76 minutes were on the watch when Lambert’s reverse pass to Ward-Prowse pushed the youngster out wide, but his cross found PUNCHEON, whose initial header was saved, but he hooked home the rebound as Mignolet was finally beaten.
With the home crowd silenced by the leveller, Saints pushed on again with Shaw bombing on impressively again, whilst Rodriguez and Lambert continued to hassle the hosts’ backline in search of a killer second strike.
Ward-Prowse and Puncheon were involved once more as the clock ticked over into the last ten minutes, with the former’s low strike blocked after collecting his fellow substitute’s cross from the right.
On 87 Saints created their best chance to win it when Rodriguez cleverly dinked a chip into Lambert’s path which the striker controlled and struck viciously towards goal, only for Mignolet to push it away with his right hand. The ball subsequently squirmed out to Steven Davis, whose shot was deflected wide.
Three minutes of stoppage time were added on, which was played out in a competitive fashion, but the point Saints needed to avoid last day drama barring a dramatic swing of goal difference remained safe.
Full Time: Sunderland 1-1 Saints