MATCH VERDICT: Bolton Wanderers 2 Sunderland 2
IT wasn’t quite White Hot but it certainly was a good start.
You may look at Sunderland’s second-half comeback and worry that Wanderers have thrown away their best chance of progressing to the fourth round.
For an hour, Dougie Freedman’s new look team pressed and harried mistakes out of the Black Cats, making them look anything but Premier League quality.
Chung-Yong Lee was gifted an opening goal by Carlos Cuellar, while Marvin Sordell grabbed a rare chance with both hands to extend the lead to two with a brilliant header shortly after the restart.
A shock was on the cards before wily veteran Martin O’Neill threw on an extra striker in £8million teenager Connor Wickham and the set piece delivery of Seb Larsson and Andy Johnson began to tell.
The result was two goals in 15 minutes, and had it not been for the brilliance of Andy Lonergan and some resolute defending at the end, this story would be over.
But it isn’t. And just as 20 years ago when footballing aristocrats Liverpool salvaged a replay at Burnden Park with a late Ian Rush goal, you never know what is just around the corner.
After that game, Bruce Rioch had teed up the replay perfectly.
“I suppose Liverpool will be thinking they have done the hard work now but we will look forward to the replay and who knows what might happen if we play as well at Anfield?”
Fast forward two decades and Freedman, whose inconsistent Championship side could certainly use the shot in the arm that the cup run provided back then, was speaking along similar lines.
“I’m genuinely looking forward to the game,” he added. “I don’t think it is something we should fear at all.”
You see, FA Cup tradition runs deep in these parts – even though a sparse 12,000 crowd does not exactly bear testament to that statement. Those who did turn out may have feared the worst when Freedman made six changes, resting the likes of Kevin Davies, Chris Eagles, Jay Spearing and Adam Bogdan.
But the freshness with which they played in the opening 45 minutes, in particular, makes you wonder why it wasn’t tried before.
It all got off to a great start when Cuellar inexplicably passed across his own penalty area under pressure from Sordell to allow Chung-Yong to stroke home his fifth of the season just 11 minutes in.
Lonergan warmed up for what was to come with a couple of good saves from Gardner but otherwise, it was a tale of increasingly erratic defending from the visitors.
Simon Mignolet, Titus Bramble and the unfortunate Cuellar may well have been forced to sit next to each other on the plane home by O’Neill after seemingly meeting for the first time in the opening exchanges.
Steven Fletcher gave the Whites a let-off when he headed over the top from close range, and, likewise, Marcos Alonso should have done better when he broke through only to scuff a shot well wide of the target.
The afternoon’s biggest down note was the withdrawal of Joe Riley, who limped off with a damaged foot just 36 minutes into his first-team return.
Wanderers got the reward their possession play had warranted three minutes after the restart as Petrov’s corner was headed back by Keith Andrews and then turned in impressively by Sordell.
The youngster had not started a game since August but there was evidence here that talk of his Reebok career being over is very much premature.
Sunderland reacted by sending on Wickham and the change was almost instantaneous. Lonergan pulled off a quite brilliant reaction save to claw out Fletcher’s header but then found himself beaten when Wickham scrambled the ball home at the far post.
Wanderers would then get a couple of decent chances to restore the two-goal cushion. Sordell got the benefit of a slender onside call to race in on keeper Mignolet, only for David Bardsley to get a well-timed challenge in, and then Petrov curled a shot inches wide after cutting in from the right.
Wanderers were just holding on – and moments after Adam Johnson had blasted a shot over the top to the bemusement of the Sunderland fans, Gardner got one smack, bang on target.
Darren Pratley had cleared a dangerous cross to the edge of the box only to see the versatile former Villa man smash an unstoppable effort into the roof of the net from 18 yards.
Lonergan kept up his stubborn resistance, and credit should also go to the Whites back four for holding firm in a frantic last 15 minutes.
Even Chung-Yong was back on his own line in the closing stages to hook a goalbound header from Cuellar clear.
Both sets of fans applauded at full time to acknowledge a proper cup tie between two sides not light-years apart in quality.
Whether Wanderers can now translate that kind of performance into the Championship against Millwall next week is the million dollar question.
And then there’s that little matter of a midweek FA Cup game under the lights.