- By Graeme Anderson at the Riverside Stadium
Sunderland's slender grasp on Premier League status grew ever more slender at the Riverside Stadium as Middlesbrough’s victory surely turned the Wearsiders’ latest attempt at the Great Escape into Mission:Impossible.
One can only imagine when Sunderland fans finally see that letter ‘R’ next to their team’s name at the bottom of the league table - the Black Cats still 12 points adrift of safety with only five games now remaining - they will probably read it as ‘Relief’, as much as ‘Relegation’
The stats from both sides going into the Tees-Wear were desperate - Middlesbrough having failed to win in 2017, Sunderland on a comparably poor streak with goals having dried up in the wake of England striker Jermain Defoe scoring just once in his previous nine games.
But the visitors had at least gone into the game on a positive footing.
Buoyed by a 2-2 draw against West Ham in their last outing - their only goals in their last eight games - David Moyes named an unchanged side and put out a formation of 4-3-3, daringly ambitious by his own cautious standards this season.
He was rewarded with two corners in the opening three minutes and the first shot of the game, Darron Gibson dragging a shot wide from distance. When, a minute later, Jermain Defoe volleyed Didier N’Dong’s crossfield pass at Brad Guzan, it could be termed a bright start.
All the more galling then for the visitors to drop behind to a ninth minute punt upfield from Adam Clayton which Marten De Roon seized upon, exploiting the huge gap between centre-halves John O’Shea and Jason Denayer, to stab the ball past keeper Jordan Pickford.
For Moyes, it must have felt like, well, a slap in the face.
Worse, the fight seemed to go out of Sunderland at once.
And after 10 more torrid minutes, Pickford had to keep his side in it - blocking Stewart Downing’s shot after the Boro attacker had shrugged off ineffectual challenges from Denayer and Billy Jones and seemed certain to score.
By the time Calum Chambers rifled a shot narrowly wide of Pickford’s goal midway through the half, Sunderland had successfully turned their own fans against them thanks to a catalogue of nervy errors and basic mistakes.
David Moyes, who turned 54-years-old on Tuesday having been hit by an FA charge this week for provocative comments to a female BBC reporter, was serenaded with angry chants of: ‘We want Moyesie out’ from the away end.
Maybe in sympathy, his Sunderland side rallied towards the half-hour - Middlesbrough forced to concede a couple of bookings - before N’Dong pulled a fine save out of Guzan in the 34th minute and Billy Jones shot over the bar.
The game petered out in the 10 minutes before the break as both sides laboured to mount meaningful attacks of any sort without success - the story of both teams’ season in miniature.
The challenge now was a daunting one for Sunderland, who had not won a game all season in which they had gone into half-time behind.
But for the second time that night, they started a half brightly - Wahbi Khazri’s 47th minute goal-bound free-kick over the wall, left of goal, bringing a fine save from Guzan who dived smartly to his right to punch away.
Having started well though, the visitors went backwards again, symbolised by Khazri’s shot on goal 10 minutes later soaring high into the Teesside sky.
Middlesbrough defended ever deeper as the game wore on, naturally mindful of that failure to win a game this year but they hung on manfully to give Steve Agnew - a former Sunderland player - his first managerial win at the seventh time of asking.
He and Middlesbrough will be buoyed by the result and their season is not over yet, even though they are six points shy of fourth-bottom Hull City with only four games remaining - a footballing Everest but less of a challenge than that facing their near neighbours.
The Teessiders at least have some fight left in them, unlike Sunderland who are a shadow of those Black Cat sides of recent seasons which have fought so hard and memorably to successfully survive the drop.
Relegation though seems certain to be little more than academic for both teams - their desperate plights only put into perspective by the warm minute’s applause at the start of the game for Ugo Ehiogu, tragically taken from us too early, and the fact that Sunderland’s planned mascot, terminally-ill Bradley Lowery, was too unwell to travel.
Full time: Middlesbrough 1-0 Sunderland
It's all over at Riverside Stadium.
Average touch positions (full time)
Second half: Middlesbrough 1-0 Sunderland
We're back under way at Riverside Stadium.
Half time: Middlesbrough 1-0 Sunderland
The teams head in at the break at Riverside Stadium.
Average touch positions (half time)
An early opener from Marten de Roon makes it 1-0 to Middlesbrough.
The hosts have their first shot of the game, in reply to two so far from Sunderland.
Kick off: Middlesbrough vs Sunderland
The action gets started at Riverside Stadium.
Steve Agnew will send Middlesbrough into Wednesday night's Premier League relegation clash with derby rivals Sunderland admitting he did not expect the season to come to this.
Back on August 21, promoted Boro collected three points for the first time since their return to the top flight when they beat the Black Cats 2-1 at the Stadium of Light.
They have won only three league games since, however, and none since December 17 to leave themselves nine points adrift of safety with only 15 more available.
Aitor Karanka, the head coach who guided the club back into the big time, has been replaced in the short term by former Sunderland midfielder Agnew, and he knows time is running out fast, particularly in the wake of Saturday's 4-0 drubbing at Bournemouth.
"Back in August, it was a terrific performance and we thoroughly deserved to win the game," Agnew said.
"Moving on from August to now, April, of course there's lots of negativity towards the second half of the season and we haven't got the wins that we needed, so it's a massive disappointment.
"But we have to remain focused and we have to enjoy the challenge ahead, and that's what we will do (on Wednesday night).
"The first thing is we need the three points; secondly, the players are determined to put on a show for the supporters; and thirdly, there has to be a reaction after the disappointment of Saturday.
"We have to win the game and that's what we will be setting out to do. Three points is everything we need (on Wednesday night) and that's the target."