Sunderland struck a significant blow in the Premier League survival race with a 3-0 victory over fellow strugglers Norwich City on Saturday.
Sam Allardyce admitted before the game that his side could not afford any further mistakes in their bid to fight off relegation, and his players produced a disciplined display at Carrow Road to give their hopes of staying up a shot in the arm.
Norwich, who handed out 3,000 inflatable canaries to home fans ahead of a pivotal game in their season, enjoyed the better of the first half but found themselves behind at the break when Fabio Borini won and converted a penalty.
Nathan Redmond struck the post as Alex Neil’s side chased an equaliser, but Sunderland pounced on some slack defending to double their lead through Jermain Defoe’s 10th away league goal of the season.
Norwich battled throughout to find a lifeline and Redmond forced Vito Mannone into a good late save, but Sunderland’s defence remained resolute and Duncan Watmore’s composed finish settled matters in injury time.
The home fans grew eerily quiet as the travelling faithful roared Sunderland to a victory that takes them to within a point of 17th-placed Norwich, having played a game less.
Norwich caused panic in the Sunderland area with the first set-piece of the match before tension boiled over with just three minutes played when the Sunderland bench reacted furiously to Robbie Brady shoving DeAndre Yedlin into the advertising boards, Allardyce taking exception to Cameron Jerome’s efforts to intervene in the scuffle.
The home side were dominant in the early stages but Borini carved out the first real opening, lashing the ball agonisingly wide of the far post after Jan Kirchhoff’s header down.
That opening seemed to galvanise Sunderland and Defoe just failed to tee up Yann M’Vila after he beat John Ruddy to the ball on the edge of the Norwich area, but Mannone twice kept the scores level soon afterwards, reacting well to stop Younes Kaboul diverting into his own net before tipping Martin Olsson’s stunning 30-yard volley over the bar.
Borini ensured Sunderland went into the break in the lead, however, confidently placing a penalty into the bottom-left corner after Andre Wisdom’s challenge caught the Italian on top of his foot inside the area.
Norwich introduced Redmond at the break and he came within inches of an instant impact, hitting the base of the post with a right-footed drive from 20 yards having earlier forced a corner with a mazy run.
The Carrow Road faithful rallied behind the players as they pushed for an equaliser, but they were silenced on 53 minutes when Defoe doubled Sunderland’s lead. Kirchhoff robbed Sebastien Bassong of possession in the Norwich half and played in Borini, whose fine low cross was prodded in by Defoe at the far post.
Norwich had penalty appeals waved away when Kaboul tussled with Dieumerci Mbokani, and Lee Cattermole twice cleared efforts from the striker off the line as pressure from the home side began to build, but Sunderland spurned a great chance for a killer third when Watmore ran out of room in the area after latching onto Defoe’s reverse pass.
Redmond forced Mannone to tip a fierce shot over the bar but Watmore bagged a third in injury time, latching onto Sebastian Larsson’s fine through-ball before squeezing the ball past Ruddy at the near post.
The result keeps Sunderland’s survival bid firmly in their own hands and also means a stay of execution for Aston Villa, who must now avoid defeat at Manchester United in order to avoid relegation for at least another week.