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Handy decisions help Black Cats to point

Sunderland, booed from the field at full time after a 1-1 home draw against Norwich, had needed helping hands from their visitors for the scores to even have ended level.

The first came just five minutes after Norwich had taken a 26th-minute lead - a well-worked corner headed goalwards by Kei Kamara for Wes Hoolahan to nod in from close range.

But that would be midfielder Hoolahan's last meaningful contribution as, minutes later, he was substituted as a consequence of Norwich goalkeeper Mark Bunn's dismissal.

Forced to try and deal with a poor back header from Michael Turner, Bunn raced out of his area and was adjudged to have used his arm - more specifically, his elbow - to control the ball. The incensed goalkeeper pleaded with referee Chris Foy but to no avail, his frustration enhanced as the home fans reminded him that it was time to go.

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Scenting blood, the Stadium of Light crowd greeted the dismissal with a roar that suggested the teams had just drawn level - and, five minutes before half time, they had, thanks to another mishandling of a situation by Norwich.

This time, Sebastien Bassong was the culprit. Seemingly over his nightmare performance with Newcastle here, he had been calm and assured until he attempted to chest down a bouncing cross. Eventually the linesman awarded the penalty, to the incredulity of the visitors. The game had tilted strongly in the home side's favour as Craig Gardner converted from the spot.

But Sunderland weren't without their own handball issues. Midway through the second half, Russell Martin's cross hit Danny Rose's arm. It appeared to be inside the box, but Foy awarded the Canaries a free-kick on the edge of the box. Chants of "cheat" from the travelling fans made it clear how they felt about that decision.

Again, the debate over video technology reared its head. It would remove pressure from the referee and provide clarity over who was offender and who was victim - but still FIFA struggles to find a place for it.

In the face of adversity, credit must go to Norwich. Chris Hughton has again cultivated a tightly-knit dressing room in which everyone works for each other. Hughton's midfield four, typified by the efforts of Bradley Johnson, were out-battling O'Neill's quartet in the middle of the park.

That was something O'Neill sought to address with 15 minutes to go when James McClean, who has polarised fans' opinions, replaced Danny Graham. Striker Graham is yet to score since moving to Sunderland, with a half chance in the opening period his only reward for another heavy shift of running.

But even with this added midfield presence, Sunderland struggled to fashion chances for the isolated Steven Fletcher. Some might call Sunderland fans impatient for booing their side's inability to create, but it is a problem that has burdened the Black Cats for much of the season.

"The second-half performance was very disappointing," O'Neill said. "With the extra man, we should have tried to make it count. It was frustrating for the number of chances we didn't create."

The introduction of Connor Wickham was appreciated by fans who want excitement and attacking football to return to the Stadium of Light - but that, at the moment, seems a distant prospect.

Sunderland, ponderous and direct at the wrong moments, are at least lucky enough not to be fully embroiled in the relegation battle. But they are bottom of the form table with just two victories in 12 and, of their remaining opponents, only Southampton are below them in the table.

"I have to say, for one reason or another, we're on a run at the moment where morale and confidence is a wee bit low," O'Neill said. "You can feel it in the players."

Hughton was somewhat more positive, but described the way the decisions had balanced out as "not a good day for us". Content to accept that Bassong had handled the ball for the penalty, he took umbrage with the fact offside had not been given against Danny Graham moments before.

He said his goalkeeper was adamant that he had not handled the ball in the incident that led to his sending-off, but preferred to turn the focus on the ten remaining players and their resolute performance.

While neither side is likely to suffer relegation, there are contrasting moods at the clubs. For Sunderland, yet more turgid play sees them keen to make it to the summer without getting drawn deeper into the battle at the bottom. As for Norwich, a solid point takes them one step closer to the hallowed 40 that Hughton is so keen to reach.

Man of the Match: Michael Turner: the defender returned to the Stadium of Light and got a friendly reception. Despite his wayward header sparking the incident that led to Bunn's dismissal, he recovered well in the second half. Constantly reassuring Bassong while also clearing everything that was thrown at him, he can be pleased with his overall performance.

Sunderland verdict: Creative problems were again to the fore. Against ten men, their lack of dynamism in the centre of midfield meant the only supply lines were out wide. But with poor quality from the flanks limiting their opportunities, O'Neill could do worse than look to buy a composed, creative midfielder in the summer. While his use of 4-4-2 has met the wishes of the fans, they don't move the ball from back to front quick enough to maximise its potential.

Norwich verdict: While the Canaries can feel somewhat hard done by, they will also be pleased to have withstood the pressure of being a man down while also remaining able to fashion chances. Hughton's decision to take off Kei Kamara in favour of Grant Holt is one he may have regretted, with the former providing far more energy and threat than the latter. Hughton would be wise to look at Kamara, currently on loan, as a long-term option.


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