Sunderland produced arguably the upset of the night in the Carabao Cup as they knocked out Championship side Blackpool at Bloomfield Road.
A 3-2 victory against the Tangerines means that Lee Johnson’s side have progressed through to the third round, with the prospect of being drawn against a top Premier League side - or Newcastle United, heh heh - a realistic possibility.
Aiden O’Brien’s stoppage time winner sealed his own hat-trick and our progression, after a late equaliser from Josh Bowler had opened the opportunity for the tense drama of a penalty shootout on the West Coast.
Lee Johnson made wholesale changes ahead of the trip to the West Coast - seven in total, with both Dan Neil and Carl Winchester being moved into a more central role in midfield, whilst Alex Pritchard and Anthony Patterson retained his place in between the sticks.
The Sunderland head coach gave first starts to Nathan Broadhead, Frederik Alves and Niall Huggins, whilst despite rumours of a loan spell away from the club, Jack Diamond started in attack for the Black Cats.
First Half Action
Tyreese John-Jules provided Anthony Patterson with his first test of the match, as his left-footed effort from inside of the penalty area drew a save from the Sunderland shot-stopper.
Time and time again, Blackpool looked to exploit the wider areas and find the killer touch in the penalty area, and with only nine minutes on the clock they managed to find their opener in that exact fashion.
John-Jules found space on the left, with Huggins finding it difficult to catch up, and the Blackpool midfielder finding Shayne Lavery, who poked the ball past a stranded Patterson and into the bottom right corner – first blood to Blackpool.
You would have been mistaken for thinking that the response would have taken Sunderland a while, as within three minutes it was an instant response from the Lads to silence the home crowd.
A beautiful and incisive threaded ball from Dan Neil carved open the Blackpool defence, with Aiden O’Brien finishing off a neat move by tucking his effort underneath Daniel Grimshaw in the Tangerines goal.
After that it was the away side who looked more ruthless in attack, but Nathan Broadhead was unable to convert his effort from inside of the penalty area, shooting straight into the gloves of Grimshaw.
Blackpool did have their own opportunities, but the Sunderland backline did well to limit the openings that they were provided - although, a defensive mix-up between Wright and Alves allowed Lowery to poke a long ball goalwards, but it lacked any conviction and dropped into the gloves of Patterson.
We looked like we’d be the next side to score, and we did have the ball in the back of the net when Broadhead’s volley from Pritchard’s cross was powered into the top left corner - but sadly, it was ruled out for offside.
Despite spending large parts of the end of the first half trying to avoid conceding, Neil Critchley’s side almost found their advantage again as Reece James’ low cross was met by Carey, only for both of his efforts to be blocked on the line by the leg of Bailey Wright.
Half Time – Blackpool FC 1-1 Sunderland AFC
Second Half Action
Reece James missed arguably the best effort of the opening exchanges, as Lavery’s pass eventually dropped for the midfielder, whose driven shot flashed wide of the right post.
The away side looked threatening from corner kicks all night and utilised the space at the back post as they took the lead. Pritchard’s corner dropped for O’Brien, whose shot took a hefty deflection before beating the Blackpool goalkeeper.
There was a reason why this proved to be one of the upsets of the night, as Blackpool possessed Championship quality in their ranks, and had to call upon some of that as Critchley introduced Jerry Yates, Keshi Anderson and Josh Bowler to try and salvage a penalty shootout at the very least.
Yates almost did help the Tangerines to level proceedings, as he skipped past Cirkin, leaving him on the floor, before angling a shot that drew a superb save from Anthony Patterson.
When the equaliser did arrive, it proved to be a moment when the inexperience of Callum Doyle was punished by the quality of the opposition. A loose pass from the centre-back was picked up by Bowler before a one-two with John-Jules opened the opportunity to fire home, evening up the scores.
But. Sunderland weren’t done there as they sealed their fabulous night on the West Coast with O’Brien’s third of the match and progression through to the third round of the Carabao Cup.
Doyle made up for his error in Blackpool’s second goal to start the move that included both Huggins and Diamond, with the latter crossing for O’Brien, who was able to beat the offside trap and fire past Daniel Grimshaw to send the travelling Sunderland faithful into a stoppage-time delirium.
Full Time – Blackpool FC 2-3 Sunderland AFC
With the 90 minutes on the clock up, all eyes at Bloomfield Road moved away from the action on the pitch and to the sidelines to see four minutes added on – four minutes before a potential penalty shootout.
For Sunderland, leaving it late to spring a surprise hadn’t been part of their inventory this season, with Sunderland relying on their defensive structure to keep their leads intact; well, that was until around 9.30pm on Tuesday night.
It was backs against the wall, and with the deafening drum on the home support in the North Stand, it felt this immense cup tie would have only been heading one way, and it wasn’t going to send the Sunderland fans home happy.
That was until a moment that possibly shocked the entirety of Bloomfield Road, starting from Anthony Patterson’s roll out and then, subsequently, Callum Doyle’s ambitious run forward from defence. After making a costly error minutes previously that reversed the course of the cup tie, it would have been safer for the youngster to play it safe and feed the ball sidewards to Bailey Wright.
Not only does it sum up the ambition of the Manchester City youngster, but it sums up this new Sunderland squad - they are willing to take risks for the benefit of the club.
The away support was sent into pure delirium and joy - it felt like it was the goal that had sent Sunderland into the semi-final or the final of the competition, not just the third round.
Possibly it was just the emotion of it only being the club’s third away game since the return of fans back to matches and the excitement of a late goal, but being there last night, I feel like it encapsulated the optimism that fans have about the club at the moment.
As our Carabao Cup journey continues, bigger opposition may lie ahead in the next round. Maybe Premier League champions Manchester City, or Liverpool or Manchester United - whoever it is, I doubt they’ll phase this young and motivated Sunderland side.
That said, our focus turns to Wycombe at the weekend, in a match with larger significance. The Chairboys will no doubt have their eyes fixed on a return to the Championship, and their unbeaten start has intensified their optimism, so it’s sure to be exciting if nothing else.