How Martin O'Neill must be wishing that was the extent of his problems. While Middlesbrough produced the latest in an increasingly long line of impressive displays to win the Wear-Tees derby at the Stadium of Light, the quality of the visitors' performance could not disguise the desperate nature of Sunderland's showing. Devoid of ideas and threat once again, the Black Cats exited the League Cup with a whimper, and the boos that echoed around Wearside at the full-time whistle suggest a stuttering start to the season is on the verge of becoming a full-blown crisis.
Struggling in the bottom half of the Premier League and finding it almost impossible to score goals, Sunderland are stuck in an increasingly alarming rut. Saturday's home game with Aston Villa suddenly has the look of a watershed affair. Boro, on the other hand, are buoyant. Last weekend's win over Bolton made it four victories on the bounce in the league, and last night's success, which came courtesy of Scott McDonald's first-half strike, means Mowbray's side are just two rounds away from Wembley. A kind draw tonight, and dreams of emulating 2004's League Cup success will be even more vivid.
Sunderland's need for a victory was significantly more acute than their opponents at kick-off, but from first minute to last, it never looked like coming. O'Neill's line-up underlined the importance of a derby win, with the Black Cats boss making just four changes from the side that started at Stoke, the outfield three of which were enforced by injury. Yet if he was hoping for an immediate improvement amid the frantic atmosphere of a derby, he was left disappointed.
Middlesbrough were by far the better side throughout, displaying a confidence and slickness that was lacking in their hosts. Coincidentally, Mowbray also made four changes, but Boro looked a much more cohesive unit from the off, with McDonald and Ishmael Miller linking up effectively and both Faris Haroun and Emmanuel Ledesma offering a threat from the wide positions. Haroun's low 11th-minute effort was saved by Keiren Westwood, before McDonald and Grant Leadbitter both went close with 25-yard efforts that only narrowly failed to find the target. On each occasion, it was surprising how much space the visitors were afforded in the Black Cats' half. As if to underline the point, McDonald exploited a huge gap shortly before the half-hour mark to come within an inch of firing Boro into the lead.
Carlos Cuellar tackled Miller on the edge of the area, but the rest of the Sunderland defence failed to react to the loose ball, and McDonald was able to swoop onto it unchallenged to bend in a superb curled effort that clipped the top of the crossbar. Sunderland's only effort on goal at that stage had ended in Jason Steele beating out Adam Johnson's low strike in the second minute, and while John O'Shea should have done better with a front-post header that bounced harmlessly wide, there was lack of cohesion and conviction about much of the hosts' play.
The contrast with Boro's bright approach play was stark, and the Teessiders finally claimed the goal their enterprise merited six minutes before the break. Haroun won the ball in his own half and skipped past Lee Cattermole before releasing Miller down the right flank. The attacker beat Jack Colback before delivering an intelligent low centre into the middle, and McDonald stole ahead of two defenders to turn a close-range strike past Westwood. It was a classic poacher's finish, and made it three goals in four days for the previously exiled Australian. It was the type of goal Steven Fletcher was scoring at the start of the season, but when the Sunderland striker was finally presented with an opportunity on the stroke of half-time, he planted a header straight at Steele. And as the last few weeks have proved, if Fletcher is not scoring, it is almost impossible to see the Black Cats making a breakthrough.
The second half went a long way towards proving the point, with the parlous standard of Sunderland's attacking remaining unaltered. Far too many aimless long balls were propelled upfield O'Shea was by far the worst offender, and even the 59th-minute introduction of James McClean did little to improve the hosts' threat. Stephane Sessegnon flashed a 20-yard drive just past the post, but with Leadbitter and Nicky Bailey providing Boro with some effective bite at the heart of midfield, Steele's goal remained unthreatened for long periods.
A 64th-minute injury to Seb Hines was a problem the visitors could have done without, but George Friend slotted alongside Andre Bikey with the minimum of fuss. That Sunderland did not really test the out-of-position full-back was perhaps the biggest indictment of their desperate display. Johnson, out of sorts once again, struggled with his delivery from set pieces; the rest of the Black Cats, off key to a man, proved equally ineffective from open play.
Boro were forced to do a lot of second-half defending, but little of it was overly demanding. Nevertheless, Bikey's leadership qualities came to the fore and Leadbitter in particular was tigerish in midfield, returning to the Stadium of Light to produce a stamina-sapping display.
McDonald and Haroun both went close to doubling Boro's lead late on, Westwood produced two smart low saves in a minute, but in the end, one goal was more than sufficient.