Photo credit: AFP

Photo credit: AFP

Photo credit: AFP

Jermain Defoe held his nerve to convert the last-gasp penalty that gave Sunderland a dramatic 1-1 draw against Stoke, but the Premier League strugglers still slipped back into the relegation zone on Saturday.

Sam Allardyce’s side started the weekend outside the bottom three on goal difference, but their survival bid suffered a setback despite Defoe’s late leveler at the Britannia Stadium.

Marko Arnautovic put Stoke ahead early in the second half and there was worse news for Sunderland back in their native north-east, where Newcastle were grinding out a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace.

It was looking bleak for the Black Cats until the fourth minute of stoppage-time when Defoe stepped up to score the penalty that salvaged a point.

Extending their unbeaten run to three matches couldn’t stop Sunderland dropping to third bottom, with Newcastle now one point above them.

Sunderland’s fate is still in their own hands as they have a game in hand on hated local rivals Newcastle, but time is running out to beat the drop.

With mid-table Stoke having little to play for in the final weeks of the season, Mark Hughes’ men appeared to have their minds on their holiday plans while conceding four goals in each of their last three games.

But they looked far more compact and dangerous against nervy Sunderland.

Peter Crouch was making a rare start up front for Stoke and inevitably the towering targetman had numerous high balls pumped his way, with one almost bringing a goal when the former England forward’s header was pushed away by Sunderland goalkeeper Vito Mannone.

Crouch was proving hard for Sunderland to subdue and he threatened with a header that bounced narrowly wide before Arnautovic hurriedly blasted over when he had time for a more considered effort.

– Dubious circumstances –

Needing a significant improvement after a tepid first half, Sunderland squandered a chance soon after the interval when Younes Kaboul headed straight at Stoke goalkeeper Jakob Haugaard.

But Allardyce’s team fell behind in dubious circumstances in the 50th minute.

Charlie Adam lifted the ball towards Crouch, who appeared to foul Younes Kaboul as he placed two hands on his back to win a header which bounced into the path of Arnautovic.

With no foul forthcoming, Arnautovic was free to lash a low shot past Mannone while Sunderland protested in vain.

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Arnautovic’s 12th club goal of the season turned out to be the Austria international’s last contribution as he limped off soon after with a recurrence of a hamstring injury.

Defoe’s predatory instincts had been instrumental in Sunderland’s improvement, but the former Tottenham striker was enduring a subdued outing and he blazed over with his first sight of goal.

Adding insult to injury, news filtered through that Newcastle had taken the lead against Palace, who compounded Sunderland’s misery by missing a penalty.

Defoe tried to restore Sunderland’s flagging spirits, but he shot over and then wide.

Yet there was a dramatic twist in stoppage-time as referee Craig Pawson awarded a penalty for Geoff Cameron’s needless push on Defoe.

It was Defoe who took the spot-kick himself, slotting home his 17th goal of the season to spark wild celebration among the underland supporters crammed into one corner of the stadium.