SUNDERLAND’S erratic results under Gos Poyet continued last night – loss, win, loss, win.
But in this, his fourth game in charge, there were the first clear and indisputable signs that his players are absorbing his footballing philosophy and developing the recognisable style he wants to be their consistent hallmark for the rest of the season.
The new head coach has talked about the clearly defined style in which recent opponents Swansea and Southampton play their football and, for Sunderland, he has in mind the consistent, passing football which characterised his team at Brighton.
At times, in a torturous first half last night it was painful to watch the birth of the process, as Sunderland’s players concentrated almost as much on adhering to the new plan, as they did to containing their opponents.
Pass, pass, pass was the order of the day, even if it meant producing no end result.
At times, it threatened to frustrate home fans who have already endured a frustrating season, but they were happy enough by the conclusion of a game which saw the Black Cats into the last eight of the League Cup for the first time since 2000/01.
Poyet knows that fans will accept the low-excitement style of patient football if it produces results and he admitted afterwards: “The way we are playing is new for the fans and I was really pleased that we won the game to show that it can work.”
With Sunderland’s players wrestling with the new way of playing, as much as the game itself, it was no surprise that much-changed Southampton carved out the early chances.
Full-back Calum Chambers put in a tricky, low cross from the right which John O’Shea scooped clear of Saints’ lurking lone striker Tadanari Lee in the fifth minute.
And it was Southampton who produced the next danger too – a Phil Bardsley mistake resulting in a right-wing corner from which Jay Rodriguez almost capitalised inside the six-yard box.
The Black Cats finally stirred themselves into life as an attacking force in the 10th minute when birthday boy Jozy Altidore – 24 yesterday – burst down the right-hand channel before cutting inside.
But his shot lacked power and former Sunderland keeper Kelvin Davis had an easy save to make.
Ironically, had the striker looked up, he would have seen Emanuele Giaccherini unmarked on the edge of the 18-yard box – one more pass might have made all the difference.
Davis did not have a save to make at all from Sunderland’s next meaningful attack, just before the quarter-hour, when Ondrej Celustka squared a ball just in front of the six-yard box, but Giaccherini could not get the ball out from between his legs.and the opportunity passed.
Altidore was clearly under instructions to shoot on sight and, in the 26th minute, he struck a powerful effort a few yards wide of Davis’s right-hand post.
In a game of few chances, Colback was given the opportunity to make a difference in the 31st minute from a Johnson corner from the left – the ball dropping to the midfielder on the left of the 18-yard box, but he swept his shot across the face of goal and there was no red and white shirt to produce the finishing touch.
Sunderland continued to keep possession and create little.
But the other side of that coin was that Southampton saw less of the ball than they might have expected – though they might easily have scored in the 43rd minute when Jack Cork found Gaston Ramirez with an eye-of-a-needle pass which the Uruguayan side-footed over the crossbar when he looked sure to hit the target from 12 yards out, on the right of goal.
Poyet had made seven changes to the side which lost at Hull last weekend – three of them enforced by Keiren Westwood’s injury and the red cards picked up by Andrea Dossena and Lee Cattermole.
But the Black Cats’ cause was undoubtedly helped by Southampton making TEN changes from their team which drew at Stoke at the weekend.
And buoyed by their solidity in the first half – helped by Vito Mannone’s confidence in the Sunderland goal and Wes Brown’s assured return after nearly two years since his last first-team start – Sunderland started the second half brightly.
Craig Gardner had two efforts on goal in the 48th minute – the first a well-struck shot from a sweet Altidore back-heel, the second a header from Bardsley’s left-wing cross.
Both forced Davis into action, but the Saints keeper did particularly well to keep the first one out.
In contrast, Southampton were restricted to a couple of long-range chances before the hour, both of which sailed harmlessly wide.
The 37-year-old Davis – who endured the most torrid of seasons in the Black Cats’ 2005/06 15-point relegation season – was made captain for the night and might have hoped for a shot at redemption and the chance to be the hero of the hour.
But those hopes were dashed when Sunderland took the lead on the hour after Cork took a booking for pulling back Colback, who was breaking away down the left-hand channel.
Adam Johnson put the ball towards the back post, Brown nodded it back into the danger-zone and Altidore’s on-target close-range header was flapped at by Davis, allowing Bardsley to power the ball home from inside the six-yard box.
It was just the tonic Sunderland needed for their 60 minutes of hard work.
After that, their attention turned more towards ensuring Southampton didn’t get back in the game.
A lovely back-heel in the 66th minute by Steven Davis came close to playing in full-back Chambers, but Colback wrestled the defender to the ground 15 yards from goal and referee Lee Mason was lenient.
As the ball was cleared, Celustka was injured and limped off down the tunnel to be replaced by Seb Larsson, with Colback switching to left-back to allow the Swede to move into midfield.
Southampton made changes too, but they were struggling to make an impact and went closest to scoring in the 74th minute when poor communication between O’Shea and Mannone saw the keeper trying a clearance which cannoned off the back of Adam Lallana and could easily have resulted in an embarrassing equaliser.
Ki was lucky to escape a second yellow card 10 minutes from time when he went in clumsily on James Ward-Prowse after losing the ball.
Two minutes later, Gardner collided with Lallana in the box, but the referee once again decided it was no penalty.
Sunderland seemed to put the tie beyond Southampton with an 86th-minute goal begun by Colback’s smart ball down the line on the left,
The visitors sought to cut the ball out, but Altidore seized possession and gained ground on goal before unselfishly playing in the over-lapping Larsson, down the right, who took the ball in his stride and shot across Davis from 15 yards out,
This being Sunderland though, there was no easy ride to the finish line.
Southampton pulled one back in the 88th minute from a free-kick – Sunderland’s set-piece jinx striking again when Ward Prowse’s ball in from the right was headed back across goal by Jos Hooiveld at the far post and central defensive partner Maya Yoshida climbed above Larsson to nod home from four yards.
It might have made for a nervy last few minutes, but Sunderland were now looking more at ease with their passing game and saw the game out comfortably to secure a home Capital One Cup quarter-final against Chelsea.
In a dark season so far at the Stadium of Light, the League Cup has provided one clear reason to be cheerful for Sunderland fans.
And if the patient passing game paraded by Sunderland last night is short of adrenalin rushes for supporters, well, they will tolerate that if results pick up in the weeks ahead and offer the prospect of progress in both league and cup this season.