Sunderland have booked their place in the quarter-finals of the Papa John’s Trophy, with a 2-0 victory over Port Vale at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday night.
Two Aidens sealed their progression, with goals from Aiden O’Brien and Aiden McGeady, meaning that Lee Johnson’s side have built some momentum heading into their league meeting with AFC Wimbledon on Saturday afternoon.
Lee Johnson made seven changes to the team that he chose to face Hull City on Saturday night, with youngsters, Dan Neil and Elliot Embleton, being given a start against Port Vale. Jordan Willis returned from an injury to partner Bailey Wright in the centre of defence.
After picking up an eye injury on Saturday, Lee Burge was left out of the squad, with Remi Matthews beginning in between the sticks. Lynden Gooch, Aiden O’Brien and Chris Maguire were all given an opportunity in attack, with Josh Scowen retaining his place behind them in midfield.
First Half Action
In the opening stages Sunderland looked the more dominant side, and had control of the match. Chris Maguire set the tone for a controlling first half, with an early effort drawing a brilliant save from the Port Vale goalkeeper, after O’Brien’s searching cross.
Max Power tried his luck when his header from CallumMcFadzean’s cross was aimed just over the top of the crossbar, but it felt like a goal was on its way for the Black Cats.
Aiden O’Brien has spent lengthy spells on the sidelines over recent weeks, but was provided with his moment when Gooch slipped a through ball to the Sunderland attacker, and he finished with a comfortable left-footed finish into the bottom right corner.
They didn’t stop after netting one goal, as only moments later the Black Cats struck the crossbar. Power and Embleton played a composed one-two, with Embleton receiving the ball back before firing goalwards. With the help from a deflection from Lynden Gooch, Embleton’s shot struck the under-side of Dino Visser’s bar.
The Black Cats were playing with a swagger and confidence that has rarely been seen this season, as Gooch’s cross pin-pointed Aiden O’Brien, whose overhead kick was grasped hold of by the Port Vale goalkeeper.
Lee Johnson would have been disappointed that the half time whistle was blown when it was, as it disrupted his side’s momentum, as Aiden O’Brien’s 21st minute strike meant that Sunderland went in at the break in firm control.
Half Time - Sunderland AFC 1-0 Port Vale FC
Second Half Action
The half time interval saw Lee Johnson make a switch, with Grant Leadbitter replacing Daniel Neil in the centre of midfield.
Fortunes and luck were running against Sunderland within the opening moments of second half, with Port Vale coming close to putting the ball into their own net when Maguire cut the ball back and it should have been cleared. But Whitehead sliced it into the air, which resulted in the ball striking the right post, leaving the goalkeeper stranded.
Lynden Gooch was proving instrumental in Sunderland’s attacks inside of the second 45, when two of his shots from just outside of the penalty area were deflected by a Port Vale player and bounced away from the goal for corners on both occasions.
Despite Port Vale sneaking closer into the possession stats, the hosts always looked a threat on the attack; Chris Maguire the latest to attempt to double Sunderland’s advantage with a close-range effort that was fired over the bar.
With 72 minutes on the clock, Lee Johnson thought it was time to begin to ring the changes, as Aiden McGeady, Charlie Wyke and Ollie Younger replaced Chris Maguire, Lynden Gooch and Jordan Willis.
Those changes almost made an instant impact, with McGeady and Wyke teaming up to nearly double Sunderland’s lead. When McGeady’s cross from the left was delivered into the area, Wyke planted his header onto the goalkeeper, with an easy reaction save from Visser.
Jack Diamond was then provided with just over 10 minutes of game time, as he replaced Elliot Embleton in Sunderland’s attack.
Port Vale looked to send the game into a penalty shootout during the added time, but Montano’s left-footed hook across the face of goal wasn’t met by any green Port Vale shirts, with the ball rolling wide of the right post.
Sunderland were provided with an opportunity to seal their progression to the next round when Jack Diamond was brought to the ground by the gloves of Dino VIsser inside of the penalty area after O’Brien’s through ball.
From the resulting penalty, Aiden McGeady’s effort was far too powerful to be kept out by the Port Vale goalkeeper, with the ball stinging his gloves and dropping into the back of the net. That was virtually the last kick of the game, with Sunderland putting their name into the hat for the quarter-final draw of the Papa John’s Trophy.
Full Time - Sunderland AFC 2-0 Port Vale FC
After every EFL Trophy game, the same question pops into my mind: do Sunderland really need to win the competition this season?
Coincidentally, the same answer comes each time: yes, Sunderland should aspire to win the tournament in this campaign.
The heartbreak that the EFL Trophy provided in March 2019 was gutting and one that no Sunderland fan will ever want to experience again, with the regret and feeling of coming so close still sticking with the players that are still at the club.
Lee Johnson will hope that this will be the final season that the club will play in the competition, with promotion the overall target, so could the EFL Trophy be seen as a distraction that the club doesn’t need at this period?
The possibility that the final could be played in front of an empty Wembley sits uncomfortable for fans of every club that remains in the tournament, as everyone will want to do their best to spur on their side to the silverware.
Also, the EFL have still yet to find a space for last season’s final between Portsmouth and Salford to be played, with this season’s final also likely to be push further back in the hectic schedule.
Meanwhile, just the prospect of playing in a final will spur on the players with this upmost confidence that they may be able to carry into their league form.
Overall, it doesn’t matter what any fan’s answer is, as Lee Johnson has reiterated that he wants to win the EFL Trophy - a competition in which he guided Barnsley to the final but left the club for Bristol City before getting the chance to manage the team in the final. His desire to win the competition was kept alive, with Tuesday’s 2-0 win against Port Vale at the Stadium of Light.
The extent of Sunderland’s squad depth was put on show for everyone to see, with Johnson still able to field a fairly strong side, with the likes of Jordan Willis, Chris Maguire and Lynden Gooch, despite making seven changes. Sunderland completely dominated proceedings, with Port Vale barely being given a sniff of the ball, as the Black Cats had just under 70% possession for most of the first half.
Elliot Embleton played one of his best performances this season, as he looked to inch his way back into Lee Johnson’s first team plans.
Every player played their part into sending Sunderland through to the quarter-finals of the competition, but focus turns to the Black Cats’ first ever trip back to Plough Lane, when they face AFC Wimbledon on Saturday afternoon.
Furthermore, another game approaches in the EFL Trophy, with the quarter-finals being played in early-February, with Sunderland being able to draw the likes of Peterborough, Lincoln or Hull City.
With the season’s halfway point beginning to be reached, the EFL Trophy may provide Sunderland with a distraction from their priority of the league, which continues on Saturday, but a welcome distraction it will be.