THE OCCASIONS on which Sunderland have been vulnerable during Martin O’Neill’s reign have been few and far between.
But in the opening 45 minutes of the Wear-Tees derby’s first run, the Black Cats regressed and the fifth round was beckoning for Middlesbrough.
Had Lukas Jutkiewicz shown sufficient poise to profit from the glorious opportunity to double Boro’s advantage on the stroke of half-time, Sunderland’s streak without advancing beyond the fourth round would have been in severe danger of extending to eight years.
But without the chasm of a second goal to overcome, Sunderland scrapped their way back to level proceedings and remain in the hat despite their poorest display under O’Neill.
It is difficult to contemplate tonight’s replay without fearing Boro’s chance has gone to finally bring some cheer to Teesside after three sorry seasons.
Sunderland are unlikely to reproduce such a languid display, while Boro will struggle to play so well after physically bullying the Black Cats at the Stadium of Light.
Admittedly, Tony Mowbray’s men are on their home turf this time around and will be backed by a vociferous crowd.
But that should hardly faze Sunderland after winning at the equally hostile Britannia Stadium for the first time since 2004 – ironically the year the Black Cats last made it to the fifth round of the cup.
Boro are hardly helped by a torrid injury crisis which has robbed them of their most likely goal-getters.
The return of midfield duo Julio Arca and Kevin Thomson, who both missed the first cup clash through suspension, provides a modicum of comfort.
But the injury absence of Scott McDonald and potentially Marvin Emnes, plus Stadium of Light scorer Barry Robson, leaves Mowbray considering a baptism of fire first start for ex-Darlington striker Curtis Main.
The other key player who could be missing for the hosts tonight is Belgian midfielder Faris Haroun, which may sway O’Neill’s thoughts in his own selection.
Haroun was hugely influential on Wearside, dominating the physical battle with Sunderland’s diminutive central midfielders and working tirelessly to close down the available space.
If Haroun had been available, O’Neill may have been tempted to keep David Meyler in the starting XI in order to inject some muscle into what promises to be another tough-tackling battle.
But with Haroun missing and Jack Colback back in the side to provide some protection for the back four, Meyler’s place has to be under threat with Fraizer Campbell benefiting from a breather at the weekend.
From a point where he was expected to be gently re-introduced, Campbell has suddenly become a shoe-in and can expect to resume his mouth-watering partnership with Stephane Sessegnon tonight.
There is perhaps a case to argue Campbell could be left on the bench ahead of Saturday’s visit of Arsenal, particularly if tonight’s encounter remains in typically tight derby mode and extends into extra-time.
But given the way Campbell has adapted so seamlessly to life back in the first-team and his impact against Norwich, he is the potential match-winner in Sunderland’s ranks.
Elsewhere, there remains the possibility that O’Neill may introduce fresh legs given the schedule Sunderland have faced.
Yet while confidence is high and the Black Cats continue to savour the sweet taste of victory, fatigue inevitably becomes a distant concern for players flushed with momentum.
Don’t expect tonight to follow a vastly different pattern from the first game.
It will be tight, scrappy and probably lacking the quality which Sunderland certainly showed against the Canaries last week.
But Sunderland failed to make their Premier League class show in their first outing against the Boro and it would be a shock if they were similarly under-par again.
Verdict: Away win