The relegation survival race took another twist as Billy Jones proved an unlikely hero for Sunderland against Hull City at the KCOM stadium before Jermain Defoe sealed all three points. It leaves the Tigers relying on Everton to do them a favour against rivals Swansea City during the evening kick-off.
Defoe keeps his place
With David Moyes quashing reports that he was on his way out of Sunderland following their relegation from the top flight last weekend, the Black Cats' manager responded by playing a strong side following rumours he would experiment with the Club's youth ahead of next season's Championship campaign. Three changes were made from the team that lost to Bournemouth last weekend as Jones, Jason Denayer and George Honeyman replaced Donald Love, Steven Pienaar and Wahbi Khazri. Sebastian Larsson took a place on the bench as he returned from suspension, whilst Defoe started in attack despite being linked with a summer move away.
Meanwhile, Marco Silva expressed his need for three points as he opted for two up front with Abel Hernandez replacing Evandro to join Oumar Niasse in the quest for goals. Following their escape from Southampton with a point last Saturday, Silva expressed his desire for more creativity in attacking areas, stating in his programme notes "our decisions in the final third weren't the best and we should have created more chances".
Tense opening for the hosts
Gaps appeared immediately between the lines of Sunderland's midfield and defence but it was the visitors who had the first effort when Fabio Borini half-volleyed an ambitious effort over from Jones' clipped pass into the right channel. Jones then ventured forward into space and picked out Honeyman with a free header but the youngster could only nod tamely wide when he should have scored.
Hull eventually settled and it was no surprise to see PFA Player of the Month Kamil Grosicki pulling the strings. The left winger looked to be the desired outlet and a move flowing around the Polish international resulted in Sam Clucas hitting a sighter straight at Jordan Pickford.
The pair almost combined to greater effect on the 20-minute mark. Grosicki turned Jones inside out several times before his cross fell to Clucas who forced Pickford into a stretched save. Moments later, Harry Maguire ventured out of defence before screwing an effort wide from just outside the box.
That moment of pressure looked to be a flash in the pan for the hosts as Sunderland grew back into the first half. A number of nervy passes went astray in midfield before Defoe flashed an effort wide for Sunderland.
Niasse appeal waved away
Yet a quietened home crowd were soon on their feet as a strong penalty appeal was turned down. Niasse acrobatically diverted an effort goalwards, only for John O'Shea's raised arm to block his strike. Referee Neil Swarbrick waved the protests away with the distance between Niasse and O'Shea the likely reason a penalty was not given.
That spark seemed to give Hull a lift as Hernandez began to grow into the game. Dropping off Niasse, the Uruguayan began to see more of the ball and went close when cutting in off the right flank.
O'Shea flashed a difficult header wide and Victor Anichebe stroked a weak effort straight at Eldin Jakupovic as the opening 45 minutes filtered to a close. Both sides would have been encouraged by spells of pressure but were unable to build any sort of consistency.
Tigers go on the prowl
Hull began the second half looking like they had received a rocket from Silva but a more offensive outlook almost caused their downfall. A direct ball from Pickford found Defoe through on goal, only to be thwarted by Jakupovic. Yet just moments later Grosicki clipped a cross to Alfred N'Diaye who got his feet tangled and fluffed a golden opportunity wide with the goal at his mercy.
If the importance of Hull taking all three points was ever in doubt then their high defensive line was proving otherwise. They were almost caught out again when a lack of communication in midfield allowed Honeyman to head Defoe through but he fired wide under pressure from Andrew Robertson.
The tempo had certainly risen as Hull produced their best effort of the game soon after. Ahmed Elmohamady found space on the right and he picked out Lazar Markovic only for the Serb's guided header to be acrobatically tipped over by Pickford.
The flanks were proving to be Hull's outlet and they went close again as Grosicki and Robertson combined on the left. The latter saw his cross deflect off Lamine Kone and into the path of Hernandez, only for his strike to deflect wide from a last ditch O'Shea block.
Jones and Defoe grab the headlines
Sunderland were still carrying a threat going forward and their travelling support would have been surprised not to see Defoe work Jakupovic after being teed up by Anichebe on the edge of the box.
However, they did get their breakthrough with a set-piece Marco Silva will not want to revisit. Billy Jones floated in completely unmarked and headed home a Honeyman corner from in front of the visiting fans. Hull were left with twenty minutes to recover a position that could come back to haunt them at the end of the season.
Hernandez set about doing that in front of a stunned home crowd but could only curl an effort from the edge of the box straight at Pickford. His strike partner then really should have equalised. Niasse found himself unmarked in the penalty area but could only poke his strike wide. The pair then combined themselves as Niasse found Hernandez only for Pickford to produce an excellent diving stop to palm the effort wide.
Hull fans and players alike were slowly seeing their hopes of a victory sliding away as Sunderland began to look the most likely to score again. Substitute Seb Larsson forced Jakupovic into a punched save from a whipped free-kick, before Evandro could only drag a strike wide for the hosts. The home side then had their fate sealed in injury time as another Larsson set-piece found Defoe unmarked before he diverted the ball into the net.
Other than a late Andrea Ranocchia header that was cleared off the line by that man Larsson, Hull went out with somewhat of a whimper as they are left desperately looking over their shoulders before their next match against Crystal Palace next weekend.