Football Echo Verdict: Relish Sunderland’s cup charge

Craig Gardner slams home Sunderland's winner today. Picture by Kevin Brady
Craig Gardner slams home Sunderland's winner today. Picture by Kevin Brady
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THOSE of a pessimistic nature will be issuing warnings of “doing a Boro” over the next few weeks.

Middlesbrough’s remarkable campaign of 1996-97, when they reached the finals of both cup competitions and were still relegated from the Premier League, will be the ominous fate that the doom mongers latch onto.

But concerns over fixture pile-up or how fatigue stemming from too many games affects Sunderland’s survival chances, have to be swept aside.

A winning habit, whatever the competition, is invaluable. So too is confidence and Sunderland managed to restore both against a below-par Southampton in the FA Cup after the disappointment of last weekend’s Hull defeat.

Gus Poyet has not treated the cups with disdain and that has been key to Sunderland’s progress into the latter reaches of both competitions.

Even though Poyet made nine changes to Southampton’s six, those in red and white were still hungry to impress – either to secure a place in the starting XI or the more modest ambition of getting a spot on the bench for the League Cup final.

That attitude paid off.

On the day when Sunderland announced their ticket allocation for Wembley was all sold out, edging to within one game of a second trip there is nothing to be sniffed at.

Sunderland deserved to progress against a Saints outfit who were a shadow of the side who impressed so thoroughly in the opening half-hour of last month’s Premier League clash on Wearside.

Mauricio Pochettino’s decision to make six changes – particularly dropping Morgan Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez to the bench – was a baffling one, considering Southampton’s league position gave them the licence to attack this competition at full pelt.

But Sunderland thoroughly took advantage and were the better side until Pochettino introduced his big guns for the final 25 minutes.

Although they struggled to create chances, Sunderland put together some slick passages of play and only fell short in their inability to connect with the final pass.

At the back, the Black Cats were solid too. Santiago Vergini looked a more far more composed and authoritative figure than against Hull, while back-up goalkeeper Oscar Ustari commanded his area with confidence.

Their fellow Argentine, Nacho Scocco, was more subdued on his debut, yet the £4million January arrival is clearly still short on match fitness.

Sunderland needed a moment of quality to convert their approach play into the lead and they got it with a thunderbolt from Craig Gardner.

Poyet had pushed the Brummie further forward during the second half and it paid off with an unstoppable drive beyond Kelvin Davis.

From then on, Gardner was excellent in looking to pounce on the uncertain touches from the Southampton defence.

If it hadn’t been for a pair of dreadful misses from Adam Lallana and particularly Rickie Lambert, the Saints would have forced a replay though.

But Sunderland could easily have enjoyed a more handsome victory themselves.

Substitute Connor Wickham showed signs of some significant progress from his loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday and held the ball up adeptly.

The big blemish for the England Under-21 striker was that he didn’t feed Fabio Borini in the three-on-one Sunderland enjoyed in the closing stages and instead opted to selfishly go for goal himself.

But Sunderland held on. Forget fixture pile-ups, the latter stages of the cups are something to be enjoyed and Poyet’s side are revelling in them.

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