A year or two ago many a Sunderland fan would have been well within their rights to be cautious of an upset had such a tie been thrown up under our management's approach to cup competition. Not now however as O'Neill continued where he left off last season and put out a very strong Sunderland side for the second round tie at the Stadium of Light which Sunderland won in convincing fashion...
As had been reported during the day O'Neill handed his two major signings of the summer starting positions in his new look Sunderland side as Adam Johnson slotted in on the right wing and Steven Fletcher lead the line. As for the rest of the side the manager did take the opportunity to rotate and give a few of the fringe players some game time. Westwood came in between the sticks, Bramble replaced Cuellar in the heart of defence and Colback slotted into the left back berth in the absence of the departing Keiran Richardson. Craig Gardner and John O'Shea reprised their respective defensive positions from the opening day of the season.
There was a new and refreshing look to Sunderland's midfield however and one that could well be quite telling for O'Neill's thinking going forward to accommodate his new recruits. Lee Cattermole was joined in the centre of the park by Sebastian Larrson starring in a "new" central midfield position, one which he would go on to perform admirably in. James McClean was a familiar sight on the left flank but undoubtedly the biggest cheer of the evening went to Adam Johnson on the right hand side. Stephane Sessegnon was given a spot "in the hole" behind the other big money signing Steven Fletcher.
Sunderland's groundstaff will no doubt have been happy to see clear skies for tonight's fixture following Saturday's washout and rather surprisingly the pitch looked in fantastic nick under the floodlights. Whilst I wasn't exactly expecting to find a ploughed field it was a little peculiar to see the playing surface in such good nick having been deemed unplayable just a couple of days earlier. Then again if you were to see the state of my lawn you would know I know the square root of diddly-squat about lawns-keeping.
The game itself was as routine as they come and I am hard-pressed to remember a game in which Sunderland enjoyed such domination and control as they did last night. This possession was also accompanied by some slick passing as the home side looked to move the ball around quickly and efficiently. There was no surprise when the main focus of Sunderland's attacks in the early stages were conducted via the new boy on the right wing who put in an impressive debut in front of the home crowd.
Credit should also be given to the "stand-in" fullbacks Craig Gardner and Jack Colback who whilst also looking composed and assured in their defensive duties were also not shy to get forward and provide support to the wingers ahead of them, a role which will undoubtedly become more crucial if we are to truly unleash the attacking potential in both James McClean and Adam Johnson. In fact young Colback was unlucky not find himself on the scoresheet after combining well with Steven Fletcher but could only fire his twenty-yard drive straight at Roche in the Morecambe net.
It came as no surprise when the opening goal came via Adam Johnson but this time it was a corner kick rather than the teasing balls that he had previously been firing across Morecambe's back line at will till that point. In the twenty-sixth minute Johnson fired his set-piece at the near post where it was met by his team-mate James McClean who made a clever run through a crowded penalty area. It was a timely reminder to the home fans not to forget the star of last season in the midst of the recent transfer activity.
Whilst Johnson enjoyed a lively debut the same could not quite be said about fellow debutant Steven Fletcher who found it difficult to get involved in the game. It would of course be ridiculous to be overly critical on the lad who has seen very little pre-season training due to a niggling ankle injury and he was still getting into the right positions inside the Morecambe box. Fancy that eh? A striker in the box? The run out will have done Fletcher the world of good and simply needs a little more game time to find his feet.
I also think that O'Neill will have been pleased with the performance put in by Sebastian Larsson in the centre of the park, who whilst doing nothing spectacular kept the ball moving and also broke up the play on a number of occassions. Ahead of the Swede Stephane Sessegnon enjoyed a lively if unremarkable game, somewhat overshadowed by the work of Adam Johnson but there were signs that the pair can link up and this can only be positive going forward.
Credit should also be given to Morecambe who dug deep and swatted away the vast majority of balls which Sunderland played into their penalty area to deny the home crowd the emphatic win which they well have been expecting following their side's early dominance. In fact in the second half it was the away side which began to ask a few questions of their Premier League hosts as Alessandra was given a little too much space which he gladly took advantage off, firing a thunderous strike on target which required Westwood to be alert and push the effort away at full stretch.
Unfortunately for the lively away fans just as they sensed their side may well be capable of grabbing an unlikely equaliser Adam Johnson and James McClean combined again to give Sunderland a two goal lead and effectively kill off the tie. Johnson did fantastically well to pick out McClean outside the area but it was the young lad from Derry who danced his way past a couple of challenges from Morecambe's dogged defence before calmly slotting the ball home - a very nice finish indeed.
With the game won O'Neill was able to ring a number of changes as a tired Steven Fletcher made way for another home debutant Louis Saha, before McClean received a standing ovation as he was replaced by Fraizer Campbell and later David Meyler would replace Lee Cattermole. It is probably worth noting however that the captain did blot his copy book somewhat with a signature yellow card earned for a needless - and from my vantage point -seemingly reckless challenge in the middle of the park. Some things never change I guess.
Team (Ratings In Brackets)
Starting XI: Westwood (6), Gardner (6), O'Shea (5), Bramble (5), Colback (6), Johnson (7), Larsson (6), Cattermole (6), McClean (8), Sessegnon (6), Fletcher (6)
Subs Used: Saha (5), Campbell (5), Meyler (5)
Man Of The Match: James McClean - It was incredibly hard to separate our two wingers last night who were a constant thorn in Morecambe's side but I'm going to give it to young James who gave a timely reminder to both his boss and the Sunderland fans not to forget what he is all about, especially at a time when all the talk and attention has been on the new arrivals. Well done Jimmy lad!
Don't forget to join us later for further match reaction in Quick Kicks!