Chris Young’s match report: Late, late surge saves Sunderland’s day

Birmingham City's Clayton Donaldson (left) and Sunderland's Seb Larsson battle for the  ball.
Birmingham City's Clayton Donaldson (left) and Sunderland's Seb Larsson battle for the ball.
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THERE ARE no marks for artistic impression.

No bonus points are gained for ruthlessly crushing lower league opposition.

These games are all about progressing, regardless of the fashion.

It’s a good job.

A year ago, Sunderland’s road to Wembley began inauspiciously when Paolo Di Canio’s side were facing Stadium of Light humiliation at the hands of League One MK Dons, before a late blitz kept their cup hopes alive.

Victory last night was no more convincing.

Despite Gus Poyet insisting that he witnessed signs of improvement once Sunderland had re-emerged for the second half, the Black Cats were painful on the eye for vast portions of their trip to St Andrew’s.

It wasn’t until Jordi Gomez found the bottom corner with a deliciously effortless long-range exocet that Sunderland finally broke into life.

Does that matter? Perhaps not.

Difficulties were always going to arise with so many changes to the starting XI. It was necessary tinkering too with the likes of Gomez, Billy Jones and Jozy Altidore all desperate for competitive minutes.

Sunderland faced an opposition manager, in Lee Clark, with a predictable point to prove too.

But the Black Cats progressed. That’s all that matters.

Now they have a testing, if winnable, home encounter in the third round, to get a step closer to a Wembley return.

The lessons to be drawn from the 3-0 victory were not particularly surprising though.

The most notable was how important Lee Cattermole is to this side.

Cattermole is Sunderland’s conduc-tor; the air-traffic controller for those in front of him.

There simply wasn’t the same driving force from replacement Liam Bridcutt.

The former Brighton man’s passing was awful, considering that is supposed to be the chief asset of his game. More noticeable though was that Sunderland just didn’t take advantage of their extra man in the middle of the park.

It wasn’t the only blatant weakness for more than an hour at St Andrews.

Billy Jones looks far more comfortable as a right-back, than a left-back.

And Connor Wickham HAS to be used as a central striker imminently. The 21-year-old is currently the sharpest frontman at Poyet’s disposal, but his impact is being limited by being forced to fill in as an inside forward.

Poyet tried to get more out of Wickham by alternating the former Ipswich man with Adam Johnson on the opposite flank during the first half.

It had little effect, but, in fairness, none of Sunderland’s attacking players emerged from that 45 minutes with any credit.

If it hadn’t been for the boisterous mood in the away end, the 2,000 or so who had travelled to the West Midlands must have wondered whether they would have been better watching the encounter on Teletext.

Sunderland’s passing lacked any crispness or precision.

Again and again, Sunderland either sent crossfield balls straight into touch or delivered hospital passes forward which were easy prey for the Birmingham defence.

Birmingham didn’t do anything special defensively. They simply got tight to the red and white shirts and pressed them quickly.

Other than an Altidore half-volley which cleared the crossbar, after Seb Larsson had cleverly picked him out with a dinked ball over the top, there was pathetically little that Sunderland mustered in the final third.

Altidore was unable to provide a platform by holding the ball up, but then the service into the American was non-existent.

Sunderland almost had the air of a side still working through the teething problems of a pre-season.

They were fortunate not to be punished for it.

For the bulk of the first half, Birmingham offered little more than the visitors; they were content to bide their time and see if anything materialised on the counter-attack.

But in the five minutes before the interval, Sunderland twice enjoyed a narrow escape.

First, right winger Mark Duffy too easily got beyond Jones, before pulling the ball back low into the path of Wes Thomas, who stabbed it wide.

A Jonathan Spector cross then pinballed between Jones, Wes Brown and Costel Pantilimon before rolling into the path of David Cotterill, who hammered his shot against the outside of the near post.

It didn’t get any better after the break.

Birmingham, who weren’t any great shakes, continued to look the more threatening, even if they struggled to create any further chances which could be classed as clear-cut.

Crucially though, Sunderland didn’t get flustered.

There seemed to be a quiet confidence that the opportunity would arrive to strike.

It came with 13 minutes to go when Sunderland broke with numbers and Johnson played a square ball to Gomez, 25 yards out, who swept the ball with his left foot into the far bottom corner.

Clark didn’t like it. The ex-Sunderland midfielder felt his side should have been awarded a throw-in in the run-up to the goal.

His side had an immediate chance to level when Brown’s backwards header lacked sufficient power and it fell to Clayton Donaldson, just inside the area, but his volley was straight at Costel Pantilimon.

Donaldson went even closer with four minutes to go when Cotterill’s left-wing cross was not properly headed clear by Sunderland and the Birmingham striker sent his scissor kick just wide from six yards out.

Birmingham were made to pay for that miss moments later, as Sunderland clinched victory.

Altidore powered his way through the home defence, before his shot was saved by Doyle.

But the ball only came out as far as Johnson, who planted it low into the far corner.

The third arrived for Sunderland with two minutes to go when substitute Emanuele Giaccherini broke at pace and fed Wickham down the left-hand side of the area.

Wickham kept his cool and fired it low into the far corner.

Did that scoreline flatter Sunderland? Undoubtedly.

But Sunderland went into the hat for the next round. Ultimately, that’s all that matters.

BIRMINGHAM: Doyle, Eardley (Spector 33), Hall, Edgar, Robinson, Duffy (Novak 61), Gleeson, Caddis, Cotterill, Donaldson, Thomas. Subs not used: Randolph, Grounds, Davis, Gray, Johnstone. Booked: Thomas (53)

SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon, Jones, Brown, O’Shea, Vergini, Johnson, Larsson (Giaccherini 81), Bridcutt, Gomez, Wickham, Altidore. Subs not used: van Aanholt, Cattermole, Rodwell, Fletcher, Mannone, Buckley.

Attendance: 11,245; Ref: Darren Bond