Sunderland dropped two key points in the race for promotion from Sky Bet League One as they largely dominated at the Valley against Charlton, but were left frustrated with a 0-0 draw.
Alex Neil’s side impressed in parts with their football, but it fell into a similar League One story for the Black Cats, as they lacked a cutting edge to force home the three points.
Ross Stewart had a plethora of chances throughout the contest; predominantly in the first half, whilst a goal-line clearance from Chris Gunter denied Dennis Cirkin at the beginning of the second.
They created openings, but couldn’t convert, and for that, their play-off hunt has been thrown into further misery - the Black Cats one point off sixth, with Sheffield Wednesday, one place above, having a game in hand, whilst Plymouth Argyle, one place below, having two games in hand.
In his pre-match press conference, Alex Neil hinted at the near return to first-team action for Nathan Broadhead, Luke O’Nien and Aiden McGeady, and stated that “some are closer than others”, and so it proved.
Broadhead was given his first start since returning from his hamstring problem that has left the striker out since the Carabao Cup quarter-final at the Emirates, as he replaced Elliot Embleton in the only change from last weekend’s 3-0 victory over Wigan Athletic.
The change in attacking setup allowed Alex Neil to opt for two strikers, that both provide altering threats: Ross Stewart provided the aerial threat, whilst Broadhead looked dangerous linking up with Pritchard, and being the provider.
It was a very promising opening from the Black Cats, and Stewart tallied up guilt-edge opportunities from set-pieces, but in the opening 45, largely lacked the goal-scoring touch.
Arguably the most clear-cut chance from the striker came early on, as his header from Pritchard’s corner was directed into the gloves of Craig MacGillivray - one of the only on-target chances in a largely lacking first half.
The away side’s efforts were astray from the target, as Cirkin’s header was tipped around the post, before Stewart, twice, glanced his header narrowly wide of the left post.
Sunderland were craving for a moment of quality, and when Pritchard stepped up to take a free-kick from just over 20 yards, it was looking like that moment was coming to the fore; only for MacGillivray to brilliantly tip the ball over the crossbar.
The Black Cats were dominating, but by being unable to convert their chances, they were leaving themselves exposed to falling behind to a Charlton side that were, no doubt, lacking in confidence, and in the final moments of the first 45, the Addicks started to look a threat.
Winless in their last five, and goalless in their last three, Johnnie Jackson’s side were looking to replicate some of the form that won his first game in charge of the club in the reverse fixture. Jayden Stockley netted the only goal that day, and Charlton’s late-half threat came, primarily, through the Addicks striker.
He probably should have put the home side in front before the interval, as his header from Elliot Lee’s free-kick was nodded inches wide of the left post.
Despite that period before the interval, the Black Cats continued to build pressure onto the Charlton backline, but yet again, they struggled to find a way through.
Cirkin’s effort, minutes after the restart, signalled that the visitors were inching closer to an opening, as his low shot was cleared off the line by Chris Gunter, before Winchester’s low drive drew a simple save from Craig MacGillivray.
Yet, the further the Black Cats came to an opener, the more you felt like Charlton would find the sucker-punch blow, and the warning signs were clear from the Valley.
Just as Sunderland were looking more likely to open the scoring, suddenly, the Addicks were looking more dangerous, and perhaps were creating the better of the opportunities.
Lavello’s header was flicked narrowly wide of the left post, before a simple ball over the top to Mason Burstow allowed the home side to break, but the Charlton striker thrashed an effort wide.
As the clock ticked down, it was becoming a much more open and frantic contest, but it should have been Sunderland who took home the three points.
Stewart was slipped behind the Charlton backline, before his effort was pushed away by the goalkeeper, before Bailey Wright’s header from the centre of the penalty area was directed just over the crossbar.
Charlton were looking more content with the point, as the stoppage time begun, but a point for Sunderland was largely not enough, but tried, and tried, and their best chance in added time coming as Embleton’s ferocious effort was blocked by the legs of Craig MacGillivray, but the Black Cats didn’t do quite enough.
Chance after chance came and went, as Alex Neil’s side drop what may prove to be a crucial two points in the play-off picture.
And, again, these points dropped may prove to be crucial.
Yet, the 0-0 draw doesn’t quite tell the full story. Yes, it was two points dropped, but the positives to be taken out of this match may be huge.
It was a second successive clean sheet, with Wright and Xhemajli beginning to construct a centre-back partnership. It wasn’t the fact of the lack of creativity in the final third; just the absence of quality to put the ball in the Charlton net.
But, within the context of the last couple of weeks for the club, a point is simply not good enough for the Black Cats’ promotion push.
These two matches approaching become huge, and take a greater significance. Home matches against two teams in the bottom six (Fleetwood and Crewe) should be bedrock for a promotion team, but at the current moment, Sunderland’s form is unpredictable.
The Black Cats may have fallen further off the play-off race, and overall, the negatives from their trip to the Valley will no doubt overshadow the positives, but onto Fleetwood on Tuesday.