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Sunderland boss left in no doubt as to importance of cup success
DURING his first summer as Sunderland’s head coach, Gus Poyet spoke to a number of supporters about their favourite matches from last season.
He expected the historic 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge to feature heavily in discussions, but it didn’t. Similarly, the dramatic victory at Old Trafford barely got a mention. Even the 3-0 triumph at St James’ Park was something of an afterthought.
Instead, the game that was on everybody’s lips was one that Sunderland lost. March’s Capital One Cup final with Manchester City might ultimately have ended in disappointment, but the euphoria that accompanied a first Wembley cup final appearance in more than two decades refuses to fade.
So when Sunderland embark on their new League Cup campaign at Birmingham City this evening, it goes without saying they will have a lot to live up to. But if anyone is in any doubt as to just what another successful cup run would mean, they only need talk to some of the fans who journeyed to London almost six months ago and packed out Covent Garden on the eve of the game.
“It's incredible what people have been saying to me,” said Poyet, who won the FA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup with Chelsea. “They talk more about (the game at) Wembley that we lost than the miracles we won. Sorry, I cannot get it but that's how much it means.
“We will certainly be trying to have another good run. Normally, it’s one (final) every 20-plus years, so to do two in a row, you're asking a lot! But we will try.”
While last season’s League Cup run ended in a series of dramatic victories, it is easy to forget the fact that it was almost over before it had begun.
A Paolo Di Canio-led Sunderland trailed MK Dons 2-0 with 12 minutes of their second-round tie remaining before a Jozy Altidore goal sparked a remarkable finish that eventually saw them run out 4-2 winners.
Today’s game with Birmingham City appears relatively straightforward on paper, but Poyet is not expecting to have everything his own way against an opposition who are unbeaten at St Andrew’s this season.
Nevertheless, he is also aware that by doing whatever it takes to scrape through, Sunderland could be embarking on another run that could take them all the way to Wembley.
“Last year, in the beginning, we had some nice draws at home, but every game can be difficult,” said Poyet. “I used one game against Southampton to try something different. Then we beat Chelsea in extra-time and we were in the semi-finals, and when you're there, you take your chances.”
Like most Premier League managers this week, Poyet expects to make changes for this evening’s game, but the size of Sunderland’s squad means his options are somewhat restricted.
Costel Pantilimon will make his senior Black Cats debut in place of Vito Mannone in goal, with Billy Jones also making his senior bow at right-back following a summer move from West Brom.
Liam Bridcutt and Jordi Gomez are expected to come into midfield, and Poyet could opt to start with Altidore in attack despite his struggles in front of goal last season.
“There are not going to be too many changes,” said Poyet. “There will be a few because there are players that need to play.
“There's going to be three or four (changes), but I'm not going to take it lightly and make 11 changes or change the system.
“It's going to be tough, it's different, but that's the cup, it's a good thing. Every cup game is like an individual final. You need to win all the time to get through and that brings a good feeling to the team because it's a small celebration if you get through.”
And for all that Sunderland have started the season relatively impressively with draws against West Brom and Manchester United, Poyet is keen to get a win on the board before the Premier League programme resumes with a trip to London to face QPR.
“I want to win,” he said. “We have drawn two games so now I want to win. I don't want any draws, I want to get back to winning ways so we have that feeling. On Saturday, I want us to be going into the game (against QPR) with a winning mentality.”
Birmingham (4-4-2): Randolph; Spector, Edgar, Hall, Grounds; Cotterill, Davis, Caddis, Novak; Donaldson, Thomas.
Sunderland (4-1-4-1): Pantilimon; Jones, Vergini, O’Shea, van Aanholt; Bridcutt; Buckley, Larsson, Rodwell, Gomez; Wickham.
* Steven Fletcher has been named in the Scotland squad for next month’s opening Euro 2016 qualifier against Germany in Dortmund.