Aston Villa remain the Premier League's only unbeaten side in 2010, but a seventh stalemate in 10 matches since the New Year did little to convince their followers that they can finish in fourth place and so claim the chance to qualify for the Champions League.
Sunderland emulated Wolverhampton Wanderers' performance last Saturday by leaving Villa Park with a point, which they ultimately merited after a torrid start in which Ashley Young threatened to pull them apart.
Fraizer Campbell's goal even gave visiting manager Steve Bruce hope of a winning return to the second city, only for John Carew to continue his hot scoring streak. This was his 14th of the season and his fifth in his last six games, before the break.
Villa manager Martin O'Neill was left to rue the free header which Carew directed wide in the second half, but John Mensah wasted an even clearer chance soon after the break while Brad Friedel denied Darren Bent a 22nd goal of the season late on, so parity certainly did not flatter Sunderland.
O'Neill's side, who have won only seven of their 16 home games, at least edged closer to Manchester City and Tottenham. However, they found Sunderland – who last won away on the season's opening day – obdurate and often dangerous opponents.
Emile Heskey, a virtual certainty to be in England's World Cup squad, suffered an Achilles injury early in the game, yet O'Neill did not rule the striker out of the visit to Chelsea on Saturday. Another of Fabio Capello's likely choices for South Africa, James Milner, has a similar problem and is rated doubtful for Stamford Bridge.
"We just couldn't get the elusive second goal," said O'Neill. "We pressed and pressed, and if we'd got it we would have deserved it. There's disappointment in the dressing-room but the Man City result keeps us still in there. Tottenham will be delighted that the two of us have dropped points but we all have some tough fixtures ahead.
"We've drawn a number of games [12 out of 30], and if we had got full points from just two of those it would have made a massive difference. But the thing about us is that we're capable of going away from home and winning."
Bruce, who believes his team are probably one win away from guaranteeing their safety, described Villa as "absolutely excellent" and said they were having "a magnificent season".
All of which, added the former Birmingham manager, showed how well Sunderland had competed. "It's been a tough winter but we've lost one in nine – to Arsenal – and with players coming back from injury, we've been more resilient," he said.
Villa's confident opening could have produced the goals to ensure an extension of Sunderland's wretched run on the road. Young and Stewart Downing peppered Craig Gordon's area with crosses, free-kicks and corners, and twice in two minutes the keeper used his feet to block headers by Carew and James Collins respectively.
Sunderland had shown their capacity to strike on the break when Bent took Kieran Richardson's pass and beat Friedel in the eighth minute. Bent was ruled offside although Bruce insisted the call was close enough for the attacker to receive the benefit of the doubt.
The officials could not save Villa when Sunderland went ahead midway through the first half. Again, Richardson was the provider, spearing a pass between the centre-backs for the darting Campbell, who shot beyond Friedel from 14 yards for his third goal in four games.
Yet Villa's self-belief remained strong, and after being denied a penalty when Michael Turner appeared to handle, they equalised on the half-hour. Milner fed the ball to the right for Young to deliver a fast, curling cross that found Carew stretching to stroke his eighth goal in six matches.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; Cuellar, Collins, Dunne, Warnock; A Young, Milner (Sidwell, 77), Petrov, Downing; Heskey (Delfouneso, 14), Carew. Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), L Young, Sidwell, Albrighton, Salifou, Beye.
Sunderland (4-5-1): Gordon; Hutton, Turner, Mensah (Da Silva, 71), Ferdinand; Campbell, Henderson, Cattermole, Richardson, Malbranque (Cana, 82); Bent. Substitutes not used: Carson (gk), Bardsley, Zenden,Kilgallon, Benjani.
Referee: M Dean (Wirral).
Man of the match: A Young