Amid the jubilation of Tuesday’s thrilling Capital One Cup win over Chelsea, there was a black cloud doing its best to obscure the silver lining to Sunderland’s season.
With Sebastian Larsson and Craig Gardner in their squad, the Black Cats know only too well cup glory is no insurance against relegation.
This is already the club’s best League Cup season since 1998-99, despite having so far been a contender for one of the worst in the league.
Yet Larsson and Gardner were part of the last team to achieve the unwanted double of winning the League Cup in the same season as Birmingham City dropped out of the Premier League.
This year, Wigan Athletic won the FA Cup only to go down days later.
It is a bit premature given there is still a two-legged semi-final against Manchester United to overcome, but the possibility remains Sunderland could follow in those ominous footsteps.
Regardless of the result, the Wearsiders will still be bottom of the table tonight – but today’s league visit of Norwich City will be important in avoiding that fate.
Tuesday’s extra-time win was only their third against top-flight opposition this season. None have come against bottom-half opposition.
With Sunderland, as usual, looking so much more convincing at home than away (they are still to win on their travels), this afternoon’s game is an important opportunity to put that right.
Ondrej Celustka may have joined the club too late to fully appreciate the context of what Sunderland are trying to achieve – and avoid – but the right-back is very conscious of the over-riding importance of Premier League survival.
He admitted: “I did not realise it was 15 years (since Sunderland had last reached the League Cup semi-finals).
“It should be very nice and it would be even better if we could reach the final. I would have to say we have to concentrate particularly for the Premier League also.
“We do not want relegation in the same year.
“We have important matches every week now and Norwich is just as important as the Chelsea game.
“We have the quality in the squad to stay up, just look at our performance when we started to play against Chelsea. I’m here in my first year and I have loved beating Manchester City, Chelsea and Newcastle at home.
“They were big performances for us and we have to deliver those every week.”
For Celustka, like all the other 13 players who joined Sunderland in the summer, playing in the Premier League was a big attraction.
Even growing up in the Czech Republic, it was England’s top flight he used to enjoy watching, developing a soft spot for next month’s semi-final opponents but whereas Sam Allardyce – manager of West Ham United, the other semi-final second-favourites – has been determined to put all his club’s eggs in the Premier League basket, Celustka – like coach Gustavo Poyet – does not see it as a choice between league and cup.
While Allardyce was resting as many of his players as possible to prioritise today’s Premier League game at Old Trafford, only for his stand-ins to muck things up by coming from behind to beat Tottenham Hospur and add two more games to their schedule, Poyet fielded a near full-strength side against Chelsea.
Rather than seeing Tuesday night as a drain on his squad’s energy ahead of a typically over-hectic Festive period, Poyet and Celustka both felt victory could have a hugely beneficial effect on the team’s chances of beating the drop.
“It was a great night for us,” Celustka said of the dramatic 2-1 victory.
“We deserved it for the hard work we put in until the last minute. It was a great result for us and great for the club to reach the semi-final.
“Now we have to try to make the final.
“That would be fantastic for Sunderland.
“It also needs to be the start of our push to stay in the Premier League.
“This game should help us. It is very important.
“We now have Norwich on Saturday and hopefully we will take the three points.”
Two more games also means two more opportunities to refine the more patient style of play Poyet has tried to impose on the struggling team. Celustka took Tuesday as another indication it is starting to pay dividends.
He added: “People and our fans see we play more football now.
“We enjoy learning different parts of the game under this manager.
“We believe a bit more than we did before and in each other. Hopefully, that will continue.”