Premier League team Sunderland will be favourites to progress into the Capital One Cup Quarter-Finals when they entertain npower Championship side Middlesbrough in Round Four on Tuesday evening – but Black Cats manager Martin O’Neill is taking nothing for granted after some recent experiences in knock-out matches.
O’Neill’s team squeezed past North Eastern neighbours Boro in an FA Cup fourth round tie last season, while they likewise had a tough time before coming through against npower League 1 team Milton Keynes Dons in the last round of the Capital One Cup.
O’Neill said: “To be honest I'm pleased that we are still in the competition, because when Lee Cattermole got sent off so early in the match against MK Dons I thought we would have problems.
“To be down to 10 men, in the first-half and away from home, it was always going to be difficult. But thankfully we managed to get through that tie and now we’re delighted to have this game against Middlesbrough to look forward to.
“I saw Boro against Hull City in the Championship last week and they were very competitive. We got a taste of them last season in the FA Cup, where we had two hard-fought matches ultimately decided in our favour by an extra-time goal.
“And I don’t imagine it will be too different this time around in terms of how tough and competitive it will be. But I'm pleased to have this game – I would certainly rather be in the competition than out of it.”
Sunderland have never won the League Cup but O’Neill has quite a pedigree in the competition, winning it twice as a midfielder with Nottingham Forest and twice again as manager of Leicester City.
And the former Wycombe Wanderers, Celtic and Aston Villa boss knows what a boost it would be to a currently struggling Black Cats team if they could progress towards this season’s Wembley final.
But he also knows that a difficult path lies ahead, with the first task to beat a Middlesbrough side who are flying high – third in the Championship table after taking 10 points from their last five games – while O’Neill’s team have collected a meagre nine points from their eight Premier League outings to date.
“We've had a stop-start seasons so far,” said the manager, “but we have now got this period in which we’re capable of putting a run together and that’s what we've got to look to do between now and Christmas – starting with this Capital One Cup tie.”
O’Neill would love to go all the way to Wembley but added: “Sunderland won’t be the only team hoping to get silverware on the table. I can think of a few others who would be considered bigger clubs than ourselves who are finding that a struggle.
“What we have immediately in front of us is the chance to get into the Quarter-Finals of the Capital One Cup by winning a derby game, and that in itself should be a big enough incentive – but I'm sure Middlesbrough that will be thinking the same way.”