It was all about changes for Sunderland last night – the six Paolo Di Canio made to Saturday’s team, the one he made from the bench and most of all, the Italian somehow managing to alter the fatalism that hangs around the Stadium of Light on nights like these.
Thanks to a stirring cameo from Connor Wickham, Di Canio avoided the ignominy of MK Dons joining Middlesbrough, Bolton and Notts County in the compendium of teams who have sent Sunderland tumbling out of cup competitions far too early.
It also completely changed the red-and-white narrative, helping the Italian shelve some searching questions that were heading his way with five minutes on the clock.
For a long time last night, Sunderland’s performance was risible and disjointed. But in turning around the fortunes of the team with a couple of astute substitutions, Di Canio helped to reshape memories of an incredible evening of cup football.
Having contradicted a pre-match assertion that six changes would be a “big mistake”, Di Canio’s team selection threatened to become the pressing issue. Instead it was left to Wickham, who doubled his goal tally with a match-saving contribution in the closing stages, to grab the headlines and suggest that he may yet have a part to play in Di Canio’s “revolution”.
You could only admire the fortitude of a Sunderland side who seemed destined for defeat after Izale McLeod’s wonderful second goal left them with a mountain to climb. That Jozy Altidore got reward for his tireless running was pleasing for Di Canio – but Wickham’s desire and the determination of the rest of the team at least gives him something to fall back on, even though this remains a work-in-progress.
A reckoning was averted but an abject first half was a stark reminder of how far Di Canio’s revolution still has to travel.
Sunderland have traditionally made heavy weather of these early-season cup-ties – the mind reels back to Roy Keane calling an extra-time defeat of Northampton one of the “worst nights of his career” – and their first half performance followed that dispiritingly familiar pattern.
Having intimated that he would not make wholesale changes, the Black Cats boss made six alterations to the side that played at Southampton and saw his team deliver a performance as disjointed as anything from the derided Martin O’Neill era.
Leaving Stï¿½phane Sessï¿½gnon and Emanuele Giaccherini out of the squad left Di Canio with no insurance policy as he gambled on the suitability of Ji as a possible support for lone front man Altidore.
There has been a heavy investment in the South Korea forward this summer, most notably in rejecting an eye-watering bid from Borussia Dortmund over the close season. But Di Canio’s championing of the front man relies on Ji repaying him with performances that prove he is Premier League class – something that was noticeably absent in a calamitous 47-minute contribution at the Stadium of Light.
Sessegnon is infuriatingly inconsistent, which is something that you cannot say about Ji on this form. He was woeful throughout. It was Ji who gave the ball away on seven minutes to allow MK Dons to prise open Sunderland’s fragile defence. John O’Shea’s chipped clearance offered the forward an opportunity to collect the ball but he tried to play a quick ball that was collected by Dele Alli.
Alarmingly, the teenager was given the freedom of the midfield to tee up Patrick Bamford, who smacked a shot that fizzed past Mannone.
Di Canio’s pre-match warning to take Karl Robinson’s team seriously had not been heeded.
They might have had a second within a few minutes of silencing the home crowd, too. Sunderland have failed to defend set-pieces sufficiently this season and Gleeson’s free-kick was swirled into the box with enough devilment for Cabral to nearly nod past his own goalkeeper. Mannone’s response was excellent, which is more than you could say for the home side, who continued to struggle for any kind of rhythm or fluency in their play. Cabral slammed a long-range free-kick into the grateful arms of Ian McLoughlin, but it was slim pickings until the stroke of half-time, when Altidore curled a shot against the post.
Before then McLeod had nearly smuggled a second past Sunderland’s static defence, bursting clear of last man Roberge before slicing his shot just wide.
We anticipated a response and Di Canio’s unhappiness was betrayed by his response to Ji’s first indiscretion of the second half. He wandered offside – a useful metaphor for his apathetic performance – and was immediately hooked by the furious Black Cats boss. The ironic cheers that rung around the stadium will hardly boost his already flagging confidence.
Part of the problem for Sunderland was that they were too often architects of their own misfortune and the second MK Dons goal came when Cabral conceded possession in the heart of midfield. Samir Carruthers pounced, slid the ball through to McLeod and he produced a wonderful chipped finish to beat Mannone and land Sunderland in deep trouble.
Di Canio lobbed the dice for the final time by summoning Seb Larsson and debutant Charis Mavrias from the bench and Sunderland produced a counter-punch when substitute Wickham played in Altidore, who smacked past McLoughlin.
Sunderland needed a second swiftly and it arrived when Wickham notched two in five minutes to completely reverse the tie. Adam Johnson’s wonderful fourth added a gloss to the scoreline.