The dust had barely settled from the disappointing derby defeat as Sunderland made the long trip to Brighton but Bruce had been in an "edgy" mood over the last few days talking up the importance of bouncing back and taking the Cup competitions seriously this season. With these words ringing in our ears it would be fair to say that the team sheet that Bruce presented was more than a little puzzling on first inspection.
In a game that rather mirrored the defeat to the old enemy, Sunderland were to edge the first half, while Brighton were to have the better of the second, with SAFC fizzing enough balls into the box and missing a number of headed chances from corners. Brighton however continued their superiority into extra time and were rightfully rewarded with the match winning goal.
Overall it would be Bruce's decision to start the game without a recognised forward as part of his starting eleven that would be the main talking point as his Sunderland side failed in their quest for Silverware at the first hurdle.
Concentrating on the league already?
Bruce rang the changes, as expected, whilst naming a strong eleven if only in an interesting setup. Keiren Westwood was given the nod ahead of Simon Mignolet who is still in his gaffer's bad books following his rookie mistake at the weekend. With Phil Bardsley serving his suspension and John O'Shea still not fit enough to figure Elmohammady was dropped back into the right back slot, Wes Brown, Anton Ferdinand and Keiran Richardson reprising their defensive roles.
A midfield three of Jack Colback, Lee Cattermole and Craig Gardner was employed, with Seb Larsson and David Vaughan supporting the lively Sessegnon in a lone striker role. Personally I was disappointed not to see Connor Wickham given a start tonight, you would have thought it would have been the ideal opportunity for the imposing youngster to figure in the starting eleven, but he would have to again wait his chance from the bench.
The away side were nearly gifted an early goal as Painter gave the ball away cheaply on the edge of the area gifting Sessegnon a golden opportunity from 18 yards which the little fella couldn't capitalise upon. A real let off for Brighton.
Brighton could also have taken an early lead themselves as the dangerous Mackail-Smith stung the palms of Westwood from 20 yards out and the debutant could only parry the shot into the path of Barnes who, luckily for Sunderland, struggled to keep his feet on the greasy surface and put his effort on the follow up over the bar.
From the early stages it seemed that Gardner was being encouraged to get forward, almost playing in the hole behind Sessegnon, reminiscent of the kind of position he filled to such good effect during his time with Birmingham. This was also important for the away side to keep the pressure on Brighton who were content to keep possession across their back line.
As the game progressed it seemed that Sunderland would be most likely to take the lead from a corner with Larsson's deliveries presenting Gardner with no fewer than three headed chances across the opening period, with his first effort after 15 minutes being the best opportunity of the bunch as the midfielder put his effort wide under little pressure in the hustle and bustle of the penalty area.
Possibly the best chance of the half came to Sessegnon who received the ball after some fantastic work from Vaughan who fed him the ball after winning no less than three tackles, however the striker seemed reluctant to pull the trigger whilst trying to work himself into a better position, but the chance had gone.
Sunderland weren't shy in putting the ball into the box, with numerous crosses coming from Richardson, Larsson, Gardner and the lively David Vaughan, however reminiscent to the game at the weekend they were to come to nothing, flashing across the face of goal with no advanced player in red and white in position or willing to gamble, which comes to be expected when utilising just a lone striker. The one time that we did manage to latch onto a ball into the box, a Richardson cross onto the head of Larsson, Ankergren in the Brighton goal was in the right position to get his hands on the ball.
The lads weren't afraid to take a chance from distance with Colback, Vaughan and Gardner all trying their luck from over 25 yards over the course of the first half. Even Ferdinand got in on the act with an effort from fully 30 yards out which was blocked by Ashley Barnes.
The half time whistle came without a breakthrough from either side, with Sunderland probably shading a relatively tight affair, but with a worrying sense of dejavu were unable to capitalise on their chances. No changes for the travelling side during the interval, whilst the home side were forced to replace injured defender Greer with Vincelot.
Brighton started the second half with a flurry of chances, the best of which fell to that man Mackail-Smith who found himself in a one-on-one position but could only steer his shot onto the post before seeing it rebound back into play off the inside of the post.
This was enough to stir Steve Bruce into action and Connor Wickham was to be given his chance after just seven minutes had passed into the second period as he replaced Lee Cattermole. A signal of intent from the gaffer as his side reverted to a 4-4-2, looking for more of a presence in the final third.
It didn't take long for the forward to make an impact as he used his physical presence to hold up the ball in the box before feeding Colback who could not direct his effort on target.
Brighton were quick to show that they were not afraid to have a go as the lively Noone worked the ball down the wing well before delivering a dangerous ball to Dunk who could only direct his header into the grateful arms of Westwood. Noone continued to be a thorn in Sunderland's side and looked the most likely to either score or make something happen for the homeside as they turned up the pressure going into the 60th minute.
Controversy had the home fans fuming as Inigo Calderon rounded Westwood, with the goal at the mercy, the fullback seemed to leave a leg waiting for Westwood's collision and a penalty rather than put the ball home. The referee rushed to the scene of the crime but to the relief of the travelling support booked the Brighton defender for diving. Poyet was fuming. Without the benefit of a replay, old fashioned radio coverage was the order of the day for this cup clash, I will have to go with the official's decision. Brighton however undoubtedly had the better of the opening fifteen minutes of the second half as they continued to pile on the pressure.
It took until the 72 minute for Sunderland to really get back into the game as Sessegnon jinked inside and fired a right footed shot from the left hand side of the area which was neatly tipped around the post by Ankergren. A rare chance in what had been a tough second half for the Premier League outfit.
Entering the last ten minutes of the game Brighton easily kept the football, so much so that the home fans were able to greet each pass with a roar of Ole, a sad indication of the way the half had panned out for SAFC. Bruce reacted by replacing Vaughan with Ji Dong-Won. The Korean's impact on the game? A freekick which he managed to put 20 yards over the bar, one of the worst sho's commentator Steve Claridge had ever seen, things weren't going to plan.
Sunderland ended the 90 with a handful of chances, the first of which fell to Gardner in the six yard box who saw his effort beaten away by the Brighton Keeper and Elmohammady was to miss a gilt edged chance with a free header from a corner kick, a worrying trend. Into extra time we went.
Brighton clearly weren't messing around as they took the lead, unsurprisingly through Mackail-Smith who was left to guide his header down and into the back of net, it must have been getting towards Elmo's bedtime as he simply left the lad unmarked from a Navarro cross.
Sunderland then reverted to form when chasing a game. Rather than try and play their way back into the game as shown in the second half at Anfield, Bruce decided to pack the box, launch the ball forward at every opportunity and hope for the best.
The second half of extra time saw Gyan enter the fray replacing Gardner as Bruce went from starting the game with no strikers on the pitch to ending it with every recognised first team forward crowding the final third. It truly was last chance saloon stuff but time and space for the bolstered forward line was at a premium and no-one was able to make an impact.
Events had the potential to get a little fiery as Sessegnon went through Painter with a tough challenge where he seemed to catch the Brighton defender, play was allowed to continue and the ball found its way to Wickham who put his shot over the bar. Poyet would have exploded if that had gone in and he would have had good reason.
That was that really, a lot of hit and hope stuff from Sunderland as it became painstakingly obvious we are lacking a real cutting, creative edge and were beaten by the better side on the night.
Teams (Ratings in brackets)
Starting XI: Westwood (5), Elmohamady (3), Brown (6), Ferdinand (6), Richardson (6), Colback (5), Cattermole (5), Gardner (5), Larsson (6), Vaughan (7), Sessegnon (6)
Subs Used: Wickham (5), Dong-Won (4), Gyan (4)
Man of the Match: David Vaughan - Very busy and lively in the first half especially, broke up the play and also created bits and pieces.
Well, thats SAFC's best chance for Silverware blown at the first hurdle. To be fair Brighton were always going to be tough opposition playing Premiership opposition for the first time at the Amex Stadium and were on confidence boosting run whilst Sunderland were still hurting from the derby defeat.
Unfortunately Bruce's gamble to start the game with no real forward of note on the pitch came back to haunt him and throwing all of his striking options on as the game slipped out of grasped was the act of a desperate man and they were given little time and space in a congested final third to make a difference. It is painfully obvious however that there are little to no signs of a partnership being created in the final third, Gyan and Sessegnon have the potential, but still require a lot more game time to build a relationship, but have we got that time available? Creativity is also missing. Kranjcar anyone?
Keep the faith.