It is a trip to Arsenal next for Sunderland. That was just one of the reasons why this was such an important game, one reason supporters felt that even a single point was necessary. For 53 minutes it looked like that might be an underestimation of Sunderland's capabilities as, having weathered Blackburn's early breeze of pass-and-move, Roy Keane's side had become competitive. The game was even.
Then, in the 53rd minute, courtesy of Nyron Nosworthy, Roque Santa Cruz was given time and space to run 30 yards into the Sunderland area. A shot and two ricochets and David Bentley was volleying past Craig Gordon. Less than two minutes later, Danny Higginbotham's back-pass fell short, allowing Brett Emerton to pressurise Gordon. Another flurry of action and Emerton was heading the ball into Santa Cruz's path and the ball was in the back of the net once again. If the first goal was cruel, the second was clumsy.
With 30 seconds left, Grant Leadbitter scored for a second successive Saturday but though there were four minutes of added time, this was not to be another late Sunderland recovery.
Many of the 41,000 present had departed before Leadbitter's clipped side-foot from 20 yards beat Brad Friedel. The sense of anxious expectation had also drained away, quiet tension coming in its stead. There will be long discussions about the difficult winter ahead.
Losing to Blackburn is no shame – Mark Hughes' team have not lost away in eight games since March, and that was at Old Trafford – and as Hughes said when talking about what Keane is constructing: "What I have is the benefit of continuity. This is my fourth season at Blackburn and I think it showed today.
"I thought we were good value, played well, created chances. It's important to dictate the tempo when you come to places like this and I thought we did that. It's important to keep the crowd quiet and I thought we did that. I think they struggled with our movement and once the goals went in we were really comfortable."
Hughes had left Benni McCarthy at the Rovers training ground in a move the South African is unlikely to appreciate and Morten Gamst Pedersen and Robbie Savage were stuck on the bench. The big decisions were justified as Rovers knocked the ball around from kick-off, Sunderland using up energy chasing men and ball. But there was no serious threat on Gordon and Hughes admitted that before Bentley's goal he was wondering if this was one of those days when superiority would not be confirmed.
"That's small comfort," Keane said. "The players gave their all and I certainly thought we deserved to get something out of the game. Their first goal was a disappointment, their second was a killer blow."
Keane was reluctant to point to the event of the 41st minute as the turning point, though he said Michael Chopra did. Chopra and Friedel had a coming together and Chopra went down. Replays were inconclusive as to whether it was a penalty.
Sunderland had stabilised by then; Leadbitter and Liam Miller were starting to show. Keane's centre-halves were doing well, Higginbotham and Nosworthy coping with Santa Cruz. Bentley was another matter, though, buzzing around in a Beardsleyesque way, his confidence matched by his skill.
The "good angles" Hughes spoke of were provided mainly by Bentley's intelligence and willingness. Bentley was booed, of course, but as Hughes said: "I think he quite enjoys the attention. He was excellent, a big personality."Reuse content