Sunderland's sights go from Europe to the Championship

Sunderland 2 West Bromwich Albion 3

At least Devon Loch got into the home straight at Aintree before his collapse. Sunderland have been performing an impression of Dick Francis's 1956 Grand National mount for 10 weeks now.

Back on 22 January, in the wake of Darren Bent's departure to Aston Villa, they went to Blackpool and produced a vibrant attacking display which earned them a 2-1 victory and put them sixth in the Premier League table with 37 points – one point behind Spurs and Chelsea. Despite the sale of their chief goalscorer, Steve Bruce's side had their sights on European horizons. Eight matches, seven defeats, and one solitary point later, Sunderland are looking anxiously over the shoulder towards the relegation trapdoor.

Eight days ago, they were a shadow of a team at Manchester City, fortunate to escape with a 5-0 defeat. On Saturday, they ended a goal-drought of seven and a half hours and held the lead twice but were outclassed by a West Bromwich Albion side travelling in the opposite direction.

Since 22 January, the Baggies have bagged 13 points more than Sunderland. At the Stadium of Light, they showed all of the character, cohesion, confidence and class that has been galvanised under Roy Hodgson's stewardship. They are now up into the top half of the table, a point ahead of Sunderland.

"We are lucky that the players are playing with a lot of confidence," Hodgson reflected. "Sunderland are not playing with that confidence but I am sure they have too much talent to be involved in a relegation fight."

We shall see. Bruce made four changes to his starting line-up and the reshuffle looked to have achieved the desired effect when Nicky Shorey, under pressure from Ahmed Elmohamady, headed a cross from Asamoah Gyan into his own net – and when, after Peter Odemwingie had pounced on a defensive lapse to equalise, Phil Bardsley put Sunderland 2-1 ahead with a thumping 25-yard drive.

In the aftermath, Bruce lamented that his defence had been "all over the place" in the second half but his midfield also went awol, allowing West Bromwich to string together the slick passing moves that set up neat finishes from Youssouf Mulumbu and Peter Scharner, both courtesy of Odemwingie prompts. Bruce's strikers were powder-puff in the second half, too.

As he surveyed the damage, which also included injuries to John Mensah, Kieran Richardson and Anton Ferdinand, the one crumb of comfort was the six-point cushion between his stalling side and the bottom three.

"I never thought I'd be looking over at the bottom end," he said, ruefully. "We're in a relegation battle and it's up to ourselves to get out of it. We need to go and win a couple of games quickly."

Next up for Bruce just happens to be a trip back to Birmingham – followed by a visit from Wigan. He desperately needs some points from those reunions. The natives on Wearside are getting restless.

Scorers: Sunderland Shorey (og) 10, Bardsley 31. West Bromwich Odemwingie 28, Mulumbu 54, Scharner 72. Subs: Sunderland Ferdinand 5 (Mensah, 12), Zenden 5 (Richardson, h-t), Sessegnon (Ferdinand, 78). West Brom Morrison (Brunt, 78), Fortune (Cox, 85), Tamas (Odemwingie, 90). Booked: Sunderland Rich-ardson, Cattermole, Ferdinand. W Brom Tamas. Man of the match Odemwingie. Rating 8/10.

Possession Sunderland 52% West Brom 48%.

Shots on target Sunderland 4 West Brom 8.

Referee P Walton (Northants). Att 41,586.

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