THE LAST THING Gus Poyet wanted was extra-time.
In the tense, scrappy, “win or bust” cauldron of Saturday’s crunch visit of Norwich City, Sunderland cannot afford to be heavy-legged.
But in the dying stages of a cup classic last night, Sunderland got something much more valuable than being let-off an added 30 minute on the legs. Positivity.
Had Chelsea coasted to victory, as they looked to be doing for the majority of the second half, then there would have been precious little for Poyet to take out of proceedings.
But suddenly those extra minutes don’t matter so much.
After five weeks of repeated body blows since the victory over Manchester City, there was another huge collective moment of euphoria inside a half-full Stadium of Light.
Sunderland can take the confidence of coming back against one of the title-chasers with a supreme extra-time display, while taking encouragement from reaching their first League Cup semi-final since 1999.
If that can have a knock-on effect on the league form, it could be a huge moment.
And while several of Poyet’s players will need plenty of rest over the next 48 hours, at least two of Sunderland’s key figures last night should be relatively fresh for the visit of Norwich after demonstrating how important they are for the cause when introduced from the bench.
Some players become better with the less supporters see of them.
It’s a perverse notion, but when fans are desperately searching for a saviour who can drag their club out of the mire, anyone and everyone is considered as a potential catalyst to recovery.
Even though one of Sunderland’s most bizarre moves in the summer transfer market was to let Alfred N’Diaye depart on loan, the possible recall of the January signing has garnered plenty of support on the terraces.
Likewise, Connor Wickham has been mooted as an answer to Sunderland’s prayers after netting five goals in seven games during his loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday.
But the absence of Ki Sung-Yeung and Fabio Borini for more than an hour of last night’s Capital One Cup exit demonstrated how big players the two loanees are becoming for Sunderland.
Own goals have outnumbered success stories for Sunderland this season, yet the on-loan Swansea man, together with Wes Brown, have been the two main positives.
Borini is now gradually starting to make his mark too.
Ki could do nothing to stir Sunderland from a tired, flat and sloppy second half display when he replaced the sloppy Craig Gardner with 30 minutes to go.
It took a goal out of absolutely nothing to do before Sunderland were rejuvenated.
The South Korean, like the rest of his team-mates, was initially guilty of conceding possession horrifyingly cheaply - Andre Schurrle almost benefiting from those giveaways when he fired wide from the edge of the area.
But Sunderland struggled to create without the 24-year-old in their midst.
While Lee Cattermole was supremely dogged throughout, he is not a creator.
There was plenty of neat passing from Sunderland on halfway in the opening 45 minutes, yet minimal service to Jozy Altidore or pressure on Chelsea’s centre-halves
Admittedly, Chelsea were not any more threatening, despite a couple of uncharacteristic giveaways from Brown going unpunished.
But without any searing pace in the side, Sunderland needed someone capable of playing a killer-ball.
Ki showed at West Ham on Saturday that he is capable of doing that from a more advanced position to accommodate the return of Cattermole.
When last night’s tussle went into extra-time, Chelsea suddenly had to be wary of a player capable of linking the midfield and attack, plus offering a presence in the penalty area.
That’s what Borini does so well too. While Adam Johnson was far from a weak link last night, his replacement was infinitely more of a goal threat.
Far from being worried over a lack of game-time, the on-loan Liverpool man suddenly looks a key component in offering a helping hand to Altidore.
Borini netted one and could have another two, but the Italian’s work-rate and tenacity is just as important as his finishing.
The 22-year-old never lets defenders settle, charges up and down the pitch to regain possession and injects some urgency into the side, which was sadly lacking after Cattermole / Lampard bundled the ball beyond Vito Mannone.
Borini’s fellow Italian Emanuele Giaccherini should get a mention too.
Giaccherini was the one player in the first half who added some invention to Sunderland’s play.
Whether it was back-heels, flicks or balls into the path of the overlapping Andrea Dossena, the former Juventus man was a bright light.
Like his team-mates, Giaccherini faded for much of the second half.
It took a half-hearted streaker, who was somehow able to maintain his tom-foolery for a couple of minutes before any stewards entered the fray, to breathe life into the Stadium of Light.
But out of nothing, Giaccherini produced a perfectly weighted through-ball in the build-up to Borini’s equaliser and did the same again moments later, for a chance the substitute should have converted.
Giaccherini got a second lease of life in extra time.
He probed away at Chelsea’s tiring defence before it eventually succumbed in the most dramatic of fashions.
Sunderland have failed to build on the previous two big high’s this season against Newcastle and Man City. They cannot afford to flop a third time in what is very much a “must win” game against Norwich.
But after a moment of such sheer joy like that, fatigue might not be such a factor.