Saints were clawed back by a valiant Sunderland side in a dramatic 2-2 draw at the Stadium of Light.
Mauricio Pochettino’s men deserved at least a point for their efforts on Wearside as they put in an accomplished performance away from home against a team fighting for points at the wrong end of the table.
Jay Rodriguez set the visitors up for a dream start with a stunning strike after just four minutes of the match. His eleventh goal of the season in all competitions was a controlled volley that was out of goalkeeper Vito Mannone’s reach.
A dominant first half display was made even better by Dejan Lovren’s second goal for the club when he volleyed home an Adam Lallana corner, but a quick-fire response for Sunderland through Fabio Borini gave the hosts hope heading into the second 45.
A rejuvenated home side made a real fist of it after the break and although the Black Cats were grateful to the efforts of Mannone, they managed to draw level through in-form winger Adam Johnson to earn Gus Poyet’s men a precious point.
Serious injury concerns for Lovren and substitute Gaston Ramirez tainted the closing stages for the visitors who remain undefeated in the league at Sunderland since 1999.
Pochettino made one change to his team from the side that beat West Bromwich Albion. Calum Chambers returned from illness to slot back into the starting eleven at the expense of Nathaniel Clyne, who dropped to the bench.
Hosts Sunderland got the game underway with Jozy Altidore and Lee Cattermole taking the first touches in the centre circle.
Saints, lining up in their changed strip of black shirts and white shorts, enjoyed an early spell of possession as they passed their way around a lacklustre home team in the opening exchanges.
Prolonged pressure from the visitors eventually told on the Black Cats as Saints robbed the Sunderland backline on two occasions before getting an early goal with just four minutes on the watch. Morgan Schneiderlin’s header down on the edge of the box landed at the feet of Jay RODRIGUEZ, who took one touch to set himself up, before unleashing a controlled volley into the bottom left corner past Vito Mannone for 1-0.
The strike was just reward for Saints’ positive start to the game, and ensured that there remained little to cheer for the natives who grew more and more restless as they struggled to get a foothold on the contest.
The hosts’ frustrations showed when Lee Cattermole was booked for a late foul on Rodriguez as he plotted another break for the visitors, only to be cynically brought to ground by the Sunderland midfielder.
The away team’s dominance with possession of the ball began to take its toll on Sunderland with Mannone making a mess of a clearance in the 13th minute. The ball fell to Jack Cork who took up the opportunity to have a free shot at goal from 40 yards, but the goalkeeper recovered in time to watch the ball sail over the bar.
Another mix-up in midfield from the home team set Rodriguez away once more, before the frontman was stopped by Adam Johnson, but another error wasn’t far away as Marcos Alonso and Wes Brown’s lack of communication saw a corner conceded rather needlessly from a cross by Cork.
On 17 Luke Shaw sensed an opportunity by advancing forward to strike a shot in at the near post, and a heavy deflection off Johnson almost put the ball beyond the reach of Mannone, but the post came to Sunderland’s rescue as the deflection took it out for a corner.
Artur Boruc had little to do, but was kept in the game by Saints’ defenders to launch another attack that almost resulted in a second goal on 20 minutes.
The ball worked its way from the right via Lallana into the middle where a step over from Lambert found Schneiderlin, whose clever chip set the striker back through on goal, but Lambert’s shot across goal just trickled wide of the far post.
Sunderland began to retreat, with Saints having to work harder to open the door, although they were almost let in again when Brown’s mis-control under pressure from Lambert saw the striker win the ball back and play in Rodriguez again, but the goal scorer’s effort was tame and easy for Mannone to collect.
But after yet another poor clearance inside their own area - this time from John O’Shea - Saints took full advantage of the resulting corner with 30 minute son the watch.
Lallana’s out-swinging delivery was met easily by Dejan LOVREN who outmuscled Brown to volley home from eight yards into the bottom left corner of the goal for 2-0.
If Saints thought they were home and hosed, then they were quickly brought back down to earth just two minutes later when Sunderland struck a bolt from the blue to get back in the game. A swirling cross from the right by Johnson fell to BORINI who took a touch before guiding a strike into the far corner of Boruc’s net to make it 2-1.
Saints responded well with Cork recovering from a late challenge on him by Ki Sung-Yeung to join the attack for a corner that Rodriguez won on the back of another positive run into the area on the right.
A well-crafted move that started with Schneiderlin earning possession for the team culminated in Lambert almost finding Lallana inside the area, but Cattermole did just enough to prevent the skipper from converting the cross as play entered the last ten minutes of the half.
A foul on Steven Davis presented Lambert with a chance to strike a free-kick at goal which Mannone sprung across his line to punch clear, and as the opening 45 minutes drew to a close, Saints remained largely on top in the contest, as they held a deserved lead going into the interval.
HALF-TIME: SUNDERLAND 1-2 SOUTHAMPTON
Lambert and Lallana restarted the action with no changes made by either side at the start of the second half.
An ambitious early effort from Steven Davis cleared the crossbar as Saints sought an early chance to restore their two goal lead, but the northern Irishman’s strike was never troubling Mannone.
Sunderland started brighter in this half, and were awarded a free-kick on the right flank when Sebastian Larsson was fouled. Johnson’s delivery from the set piece was headed away by Shaw under pressure from Bardsley.
Bardsley was disappointed to see his quick thinking from Larsson’s short free-kick go unrewarded as he poked wide from a clever reverse pass, but the assistant’s flag had already gone up for offside anyway.
Shaw then went on to join the Saints attack again and took a sweet strike at goal which Mannone had to deal with as the visitors showed that their intent had not changed despite the increased pressure from the home side.
Fellow full back Calum Chambers also tested Mannone from range in the 55th minute when he took a pass from Schneiderlin before hitting a fierce shot down towards the bottom right corner which the keeper got across to just in time.
The dominance started to show again when a break led by Rodriguez resulted with the striker testing the Sunderland keeper once more. Rodriguez interchanged with Lallana before hitting a low shot that Mannone dived upon and gathered before Lambert or Lallana could claim a rebound.
Jose Fonte was next to have a go as he headed Steven Davis’s free-kick from the right down towards the bottom right corner, but Mannone again was equal to the effort.
Luke Shaw saw a deflected strike flash wide of the right post before Lambert beat the offside trap to cross for Rodriguez, but the frontman’s effort from six yards out, clipped the side netting.
Sunderland made a double change in a bid to get back into the game with Cattermole and Larsson replaced by Craig Gardner and Jack Colback, the very same switch that marked the Black Cats’ 2-2 comeback at Cardiff City in December.
A repeat of that trick was almost instantaneous as the ball was played through to Borini moments later, and although the striker did find the back of the net, the offside flag was correctly raised against him.
Saints eased the pressure on themselves with a spell of calm possession football, but they were pegged back in dramatic fashion when a pass from Ki that made it all the way across to JOHNSON was converted by the winger with a stinging strike that went through Boruc’s hands on 72 minutes.
Steven Fletcher replaced Jozy Altidore in the aftermath of the equaliser as the hosts sensed an opportunity to take the lead.
Saints responded with a change of their own as Gaston Ramirez replaced Adam Lallana for the final quarter of an hour or so.
But still, Sunderland fought on with Brouc making two fine saves to keep the scores level. First, he denied Craig Gardner’s shot on the turn, and then he made a near post block to deny Fletcher from close range.
Johnson flashed a low drive into the area which Boruc collected, but inside the last ten minutes Saints were dealt a couple of blows in quick succession when Ramirez and Lovren each took knocks in separate incidents which required stretchers for both men.
James Ward-Prowse replaced Ramirez, whilst Maya Yoshida – who scored in Saints’ cup defeat in November - came on in place of Lovren.
Ward-Prowse made an instant impression on the game as he won a free-kick off a foul from Alonso and whipped in the resulting free-kick which Lambert headed at Mannone.
Seven minutes of stoppage time were added on due to the injuries sustained in the closing stages of the 90, with the game still very much in the balance.
There was little to separate the teams in the lengthy time added on, with Sunderland’s best opportunities coming off the back of a corner won by Fletcher off Fonte, and the hard fought contest drew to a close with nothing to choose between the two sides.
FULL-TIME: SUNDERLAND 2-2 SOUTHAMPTON
Sunderland team: Vito Mannone, Phil Bardsley, Marcos Alonso, Ki Sung-Yeung, Wes Brown, John O'Shea (c), Lee Cattermole (Craig Gardner 63), Sebastian Larsson (Jack Colback 63), Adam Johnson, Fabio Borini, Jozy Altidore (Steven Fletcher 73)
Unused substitutes: Jordan Pickford, Ondrej Celustka, Emanuele Giaccherini, Valentin Roberge
Goals: Borini, 32; Johnson, 72
Southampton team: Artur Boruc, Calum Chambers, Dejan Lovren (Maya Yoshida 86), Jose Fonte, Luke Shaw, Morgan Schneiderlin, Jack Cork, Steven Davis, Adam Lallana (c) (Gaston Ramirez 74) (James Ward-Prowse 86), Jay Rodriguez, Rickie Lambert
Unused substitutes: Kelvin Davis, Nathaniel Clyne, Jos Hooiveld, Guly do Prado
Goals: Rodriguez, 4; Lovren, 30
Referee: Chris Foy
Attendance: 38,115 (including 668 away)