RARELY can a side have played as poorly as Sunderland did for so much of this game and come out on top so late on.
Rarely can a side have played as well as League One outfit MK Dons did yet gone down to such a defeat, just as they could see the finishing line.
The unpredictable, inexplicable magic of the cup?
Well, for 75 minutes of this match, it was anything but magic from Sunderland as they laboured, terribly at times, against a slick and eager MK Dons side which played the better football.
Anyone who witnessed it must have been convinced Sunderland were going out of the cup on the back of a genuinely dreadful display.
And as the game reached the last quarter-of-an-hour, the mood among the crowd was approaching mutinous, Paolo Di Canio on the touchline looked staggered.
But four goals – the first coming as late as the 78th minute – avoided the worst night of Paolo Di Canio’s putative Sunderland reign.
And by the end of the game, home fans were singing his name and the head coach was applauding their support.
Nothing could have looked less likely than that moment though, for so much of the match.
And if the manager is looking for things to improve on, the video of this match is going to be essential viewing.
The MK Dons played some lovely, lively confident football but that didn’t explain how out of sorts Sunderland were for so much of this game, with Ji Dong-won by some distance the worst player on the pitch.
It said it all that the biggest cheer of the night up to that point, was when he was substituted in the 50th minute. Most were surprised to see him come out for the second half.
And yet today, as memory of the match thankfully begins to recede, there’s no escaping the fact either that Sunderland showed tremendous character to come back from two goals down with just a dozen minutes left of normal time remaining.
His first goal in Sunderland colours will have done summer signing Jozy Altidore a power of good, Connor Wickham’s two-goal blast must surely boost him up the pecking order, and Adam Johnson’s last-minute wonder goal is a reminder that the winger is benefiting as much as anyone from Di Canio’s fitness regime.
Whether that superior fitness was what got Sunderland this unlikely result is debatable.
But it just goes to show that if you don’t give up as a team, no matter what you are up against, there’s always a chance that you might get something from a game.
Going into the match, both sides made half-a-dozen changes from the sides which played in the league at the weekend.
In Sunderland’s case, that meant handing full debuts to Vito Mannone and David Moberg Karlsson, while in terms of the summer signings, Cabral, Valentin Roberge, Ondrej Celustka and Jozy Altidore all started.
Di Canio opted to start with the strike force which ended the game at Southampton, pairing Altidore with Ji and they linked up well in the fourth minute after Ji skilfully brought down a long ball from John O’Shea.
Gaining ground down the right, he centred to the near post for Altidore, who acrobatically lobbed a shot over his head that nearly caught out keeper Ian McLoughlin.
It was a promising start, but it was Ji’s mistake which led to the Dons taking the lead in the seventh minute – the South Korean passing straight to the opposition deep in his own half and Dele Alli moved the ball forward to Patrick Bamford, who turned and struck a great first time shot past the stranded Mannone.
The Italian keeper did not look great for that goal but three minutes later he produced a stunning save on his line –parrying a glanced header from Cabral off a Dons’ free-kick from the left.
An own goal then would have been too much for the home crowd to take.
They had already groaned in despair a minute earlier when Ji had once more passed to the opposition when well-placed just outside the opposition penalty.
That error had Di Canio telling Connor Wickham to warm-up with less than 10 minutes gone – a response which received a big cheer from the fans.
Gradually, Sunderland began to get back into it with the excellent Jack Colback forcing goalscorer Patrick Bamford into a lunge which brought a booking.
Altidore was fouled in the 18th minute five yards outside the Dons area and from the free-kick tapped to him by Johnson, brought the first meaningful save out of McLoughlin, though the shot itself lacked power.
It was nowhere near as good an opening though as the one that presented itself to Izale McLeod a minute later when he ran ahead of the Sunderland defence but dragged his low shot just wide of Mannone’s left-hand post from 18 yards.
George Baldock was booked for a nasty foul on Altidore in the 27th minute and Celustka might have done better from Moberg Karlsson’s free-kick than head it over the bar at the near post.
It was the sort of half-chance – like a Colback volley from distance which boomed over the bar a minute later – which Sunderland could not afford to pass up.
The had created little in the way of clear-cut chances throughout the opening half but on the stroke of half-time they had as good a chance as any so far when Altidore received the ball from Colback on the left of goal and smashed a shot which struck the far post.
It bounced back towards Moberg Karlsson who headed it goalwards from eight yards out but keeper McLoughin was on his toes to collect an effort which lacked power.
When the half-time whistle went, it was no surprise that it was met by a chorus of boos from the home fans. It had been as poor an opening 45 minutes football as they had seen from their side in a long time.
Sunderland emerged in the second half with Ji still on the pitch, but he was soon replaced – Connor Wickham coming on for the South Korean in the 50th minute.
By then, the League One side had already gone perilously close to getting a second, lively midfielder Stephen Gleeson dragging a shot just over Mannone’s crossbar from right of the goal.
Wickham’s arrival, or rather Ji’s departure, was greeted with the biggest cheer of the night from the home crowd.
But Sunderland did not improve in the minutes that followed and they fell further behind in the 55th minute when Izale McLeod sprinted onto a defence-splitting ball from Samir Carruthers in the centre circle to outpace Roberge and dink a shot over Mannone’s head as the keeper advanced to the edge of the 18-yard box.
Had Altidore scored a goal of such impudence and technique at the other end, we would have been talking all about the difference Premier League quality makes.
As it was, it was the League One side, now with a two-goal cushion, which looked the class act.
Sunderland did go close to getting back in the game immediately.
But Moberg Karlsson’s shot was blocked and then a minute later Wickham couldn’t make a clean connection on a great cross in from the left.
Seb Larsson replaced Cabral on the hour, Charis Mavrais came on for Moberg Karsson and, perhaps pointedly, none of the players coming off received a handshake or an acknowledgement from the head coach.
If a goal was coming, even at this stage, it looked like it would be coming at the opposite end to the one Sunderland fans wanted, with Bamford going close in the 65th minute when he pulled a shot a yard wide of Mannone’s left-hand post.
It was the last part the attacker played in the game with Dons’ boss Karl Robinson making a double substitution – Bamford and Carruthers off, Ostemobor and Banton on – the manager explaining afterwards that he was trying to rest them for the weekend!
Johnson might have pulled a goal back in the 68th minute when he cut in on goal from the right but McLoughlin spread himself well and the shot went straight at him.
Nothing was going for Sunderland and appeals for a handball in the area as well as a clear foul on Altidore in the box failed to impress referee David Coote.
The home team finally got a lucky break in the 78th minute when a block from Whickham saw the ball drop perfectly forward into the path of Altidore who got clear of the visitors defence.
Sprinting forward, he advanced into the area and drove a low shot across McLoughlin into the bottom right-hand corner of the keeper’s goal.
It should have been the signal for a charge from Sunderland but the Dons were threatening to finish the stronger side, Roberge being booked for a foul on McLeod in one of the visitors’ forays forward.
And yet, somehow, against all that had gone before, Sunderland produced a leveller in the 87th minute when Johnson got into the Dons box down the right, pushed the ball forward to Celustka and the defender pulled the back for Wickham to squeeze home from six yards out at the near post.
It was an unbelievable turnaround and it got even more incredible two minutes later when Wickham received the ball just outside the Dons’ box and let fly with a speculative shot which took a wicked deflection off Ben Reeves to wrongfoot the Dons keeper and put Sunderland ahead.
Six minutes time was added on and it could have been nervy for the home team.
But the MK Dons looked spent now and a remarkable comeback was capped in the last minute of the game when Johnson sprinted up the right wing from his own half and just as it looked as though he had carried it too far towards the touchline, he fired high into the net from the narrowest of angles.