It is hard to put into words how far this Sunderland side had come within the past four months, but if any result illustrated it perfectly, it was this one.
QPR are currently flying high in the Championship, and are one of the bookies’ favourites to gain promotion to the Premier League this season, and have started the campaign in a rich vein of form.
Their quality was clear on the team sheet; they named the experienced Andre Gray and Charlie Austin in their squad, in-form Lyndon Dykes in attack, and Championship seniors in Rob Dickie, Albert Adomah and Jordy de Wijs.
And for Sunderland to overcome this test not only provides them with optimism heading into a tough couple of months ahead, but it will have proven to themselves just far they’ve come since the summer.
Lee Johnson will no doubt be pleased with the character and the level of the performance shown, but also the constant idea that his second-string starting 11, albeit with four regulars, was able to match the levels set by the first team within League One, and challenge a higher-Championship opposition.
It was always going to be a tough test for this set of Sunderland players, in a starting 11 that included seven changes to the side that lost 1-0 over Charlton on League One at the weekend. Winchester, O’Nien, Neil and Stewart all kept their places, and it was still a relatively strong team.
Sunderland opted for a more defensive approach with three bodies in the centre of midfield, but it also helped with their attacking threat early on, as their positive start at Loftus Road almost reaped its rewards.
Leon Dajaku’s left-footed strike was met by the gloves of Seny Dieng, before Dan Neil’s weaving run was followed by a fizzing effort, but that was also denied by the QPR goalkeeper.
Dajaku was proving to be a thorn in the hosts’ side early on, as his pace on the left was proving dangerous for Mark Warburton’s side, and his threatening ball across the face of goal was begging for contact, but wasn’t met by any red-and-white shirts.
As the half progressed, QPR began to build more pressure, and Yoann Barbet’s shot produced a low save from Lee Burge, and only moments later Burge was called into action again, as he was forced to deny Lyndon Dykes’ low effort.
The high tempo to the match was being dealt with well by Lee Johnson’s side, but the question was how long Sunderland could keep these levels up.
For the Black Cats, the half-time interval couldn’t come soon enough, as QPR began to pile the pressure onto the away side, and there were visible signs that they were creaking.
After Chair’s effort was drilled narrowly wide of the right post, Frederik Alves almost sliced the ball into the back of his own net, in an attempt to prevent a dangerous cross from meeting the feet of Andre Gray.
It seemed like the half-time interval proved to be a real game-changer for the Black Cats, as they came out in the second half looking more optimistic in their approach, but it was QPR who had the first real effort, as Charlie Austin’s volley from Kakay’s cross was fired over.
Sunderland looked more dangerous within the final third and were finding more space, as the home side were taking risks of their own, and the away side were exploiting these areas well.
McGeady’s teasing cross into the penalty area looked almost certain to being turned past Seny Dieng, but both Aiden O’Brien and Ross Stewart were unable to find the connection to put Sunderland one-goal up.
Then, only minutes later, the moment of controversy. After de Wijs’ curling effort produced a fantastic save from Burge, the deflected follow-up shot from Adomah was nodded home by Charlie Austin. But, for Sunderland, there was hope – the assistant had his flag up; Austin judged to be in an offside position.
With that controversial call, it proved to be a frantic ending to a captivating cup tie, but it was Sunderland who were dominating.
First, Winchester’s low driven effort was drilled narrowly wide of the left post, before Aiden McGeady’s golden opportunity was denied by a superb save from Seny Dieng.
Penalties awaited – and it was to be a shootout that produced a dramatic ending.
Charlie Austin and Ilais Chair missed QPR’s first two penalties, wihle Aiden McGeady and Ross Stewart netted Sunderland’s first two. Yoann Barbet’s missed penalty on the fourth round proved costly, as it gave Sunderland their route to the quarter-finals.
And yet, Sunderland still have more in the tank in their EFL Cup roller-coaster.
Manchester City or Chelsea may lie ahead in the quarters, but whoever the Black Cats face, they are more than capable of matching their opponents, with Tuesday showing just that.
A trip to QPR was always going to be a test of where Sunderland are currently at, with three months of the League One season out of the way, and it was another superb and resilient performance against a side with, arguably, more quality in the ranks and more consistency with management over recent times.
Sunderland have come a long away in a short space of time, but if anything, a win over QPR (yes, it came in a penalty-shootout fashion) is no doubt a clear portrayal of the potential of this side.
It’s only the first time since the 2013/14 season that Sunderland have reached the quarter-finals of the EFL Cup, but just maybe, just maybe, can we dare to dream again?