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Cup of joy for struggling Sunderland
GOALS, GOALS: TSean O’Hanlon puts the ball into his own net to put Sunderland 2-1 ahead during the FA Cup tie.
Full-time: Sunderland 3 Carlisle United 1
IT'S a shame there is such a fascination with the Premier League because Sunderland are actually enjoying cup football this season and that continued on Wearside.
Ahead of a semi-final first leg with Manchester United in the Capital One Cup on Tuesday, the Black Cats' preparations went according to plan in the FA Cup at the Stadium of Light against Carlisle United.
Despite the League One club's near-6000 strong following on Wearside getting to cheer an equaliser shortly before half-time from boyhood Sunderland fan Matty Robson, Gus Poyet could be satisfied with his team's response.
Adam Johnson, a key factor in the 3-1 win, had given Sunderland the lead with a delightful free-kick mid-way through the first half before County Durham's Robson – rejected by Sunderland as a 14-year-old – levelled.
But Sunderland's greater quality showed after the restart, even if it took an own goal from Sean O'Hanlon to get them back on track before French teenager El-Hadji Ba marked his first appearance with a late third.
Ba and Under-21s team-mate Duncan Watmore, who also would have scored had it not been for a decent save from goalkeeper Greg Fleming, both had their moments after their second half introductions.
What mattered more to Poyet was that Sunderland sealed a place in the fourth round against either Peterborough or Kidderminster by sparing humiliation for the top-flight's basement boys against the Cumbrians.
Poyet talked about avoiding embarrassment beforehand and, despite a Capital One Cup semi-final on the horizon, he still named a strong starting line-up in a bid to progress.
There were six changes – with Lee Cattermole, Valentin Roberge and Modibo Diakite left out completely – and the South Korean playmaker Ki Sung-Yueng was asked to fill the hole at the back alongside the returning Wes Brown.
The decision to go strong had the desired effect pretty quickly. Even though Carlisle's Prince Buaben saw a low shot turned behind for a corner by Vito Mannone, Sunderland looked comfortable in possession and did most of the pressing in the first half.
The problem, like so often this season, was that the Cumbrians' goalkeeper Greg Fleming was never put under too much threat initially. He still had to rush out to deny at the feet of Jozy Altodore after a clever pass from Johnson and he also got down low to turn a Craig Gardner drive behind for a corner.
But it took Johnson's moment of magic from the set-piece to open things up. After Gardner had been tripped deep in the Carlisle half, Johnson's left-footed curler moved inside the left hand post of Fleming in the 33rd minute.
Altidore had another opportunity to extend the lead moments later when his flick from Ondrej Celustka's delivery trickled wide and Sunderland should really have took control from there.
Johnson looked hungry and full of intent after a tricky spell of being in and out of the side and Wes Brown's marshalled defence seemed to be dealing with most things in to the Sunderland area.
But the attacking threat of their lower league opponents was still evident and Celustka was fortunate when he almost turned a David Amoo delivery in to his own net. Then, from the corner, Vito Mannone thwarted Lewis Guy's hooked volley moments before Carlisle did level.
The strong running down the right flank of former Liverpool forward Amoo caused problems for Andrea Dossena and it was from that area where the equaliser came from.
His run and cross to the back post was headed away by Ki, aware of Guy behind him. The ball dropped invitingly for Robson and the former Hartlepool wing-back powered his effort in off the underside of the bar.
The massive section of away fans – all 5,621 of them – danced in delight sensing a cup shock, with sections of the home support also applauding.
Sunderland's players could have caved in given the campaign they have had in the league, but Poyet's teamtalk did the trick at half-time and did not take long at all for Sunderland to regain the initiative.
Johnson's volley after Seb Larsson's delivery looked harmless enough, but it took a wicked deflection off Carlisle skipper O'Hanlon and the ball looped high and dropped over Fleming's line.
That arrived less than five minutes after the restart and, despite a few forays forward from Carlisle's lively winger Amoo, Sunderland did not allow themselves to let a lead slip for a second time.
There also looked like being a little moment of cup magic after Poyet introduced the promising talent of Watmore for the last half hour. The former Manchester United schoolboy, signed from Altrincham in the summer, immediately lifted the home crowd with a lively display.
Watmore rarely lost possession and he almost capped his debut with a goal when a neat little one-two with Altidore ended with the 19-year-old's low shot being well saved by Fleming.
With the seconds ticking down it was the other debutant who completed the win. Frenchman Ba, signed in the summer from Le Havre, arrived in the box at just the right time to finish off Altidore's pass following more good work from Johnson.
A place in round four had been secured, if only Sunderland could be so sure about spending next season in the Premier League.