THREE goals in the final 13 minutes saw Sunderland progress into the Capital One Cup final third round with victory at Championship Birmingham.
Last season’s finalists Sunderland were below par for long portions of the tie at St Andrews, with a Birmingham side managed by former Black Cats midfielder Lee Clark enjoying the better of a poor spectacle.
But when Jordi Gomez broke the deadlock with his first Sunderland goal in the 77th minute, the floodgates opened.
Adam Johnson doubled Sunderland’s advantage when he converted the rebound from Jozy Altidore’s saved shot, before Connor Wickham put the icing on the victory a minute later.
Gus Poyet made six changes to the starting line-up, with summer signings Costel Pantilimon, Billy Jones and Jordi Gomez all making their first Sunderland starts.
Pantilimon replaced Vito Mannone in goal, Jones came in at left-back for Patrick van Aanholt and Gomez took Jack Rodwell’s spot in central midfield.
Adam Johnson, who missed last weekend’s draw against Manchester United with illness, returned to the side at the expense of Will Buckley, while Liam Bridcutt replaced Lee Cattermole in midfield.
The other change saw Jozy Altidore handed his first start of the season, at the expense of Steven Fletcher up front.
Birmingham boss Clark made five changes, with Colin Doyle, Neal Eardley, Paul Robinson, Stephen Gleeson and Mark Duffy all handed an opportunity in the starting XI.
Paul Caddis produced the first effort of the game in the fifth minute when the Birmingham midfielder let fly with a right-footed shot from 30 yards which dipped awkwardly and required Pantilimon to turn it behind.
But as the first half wore on, Sunderland were too sloppy with their passing and struggled to muster any sort of attacking threat on the Birmingham goal.
Sunderland finally created their first opportunity in the 29th minute when Connor Wickham switched the play to Adam Johnson on the left flank, whose cross just evaded Altidore.
The American retrieved possession and picked out Seb Larsson who dinked the ball back over the top of the Birmingham back-line for Altidore, who blazed a half-volley over the bar from the right of goal.
Four minutes before the interval, Birmingham went close when Duffy beat Jones down the right-hand side of the area before pulling the ball back into the six-yard box where Wes Thomas steered it just wide of the near post.
The hosts came even closer moments later when substitute Jonathan Spector’s low cross from the right deceived both Jones and Wes Brown in their attempted clearances.
The ball rolled loose off Pantilimon to David Cotterill who clattered a shot against the outside of the near post.
HALF-TIME Birmingham 0 Sunderland 0
Sunderland continued to struggle at the start of the second half, with Birmingham the better side.
But the Black Cats went close in the 65th minute when Gomez’s left wing corner was knocked back into the goalmouth by Seb Larsson at the back post, with Brown just unable to get a shot away from six yards in an almighty scramble.
Moments later, Gomez’s free-kick from 25 yards rebounded off the wall into the path of Bridcutt who hit a low right-footed shot that was gathered by Birmingham stopper Colin Doyle low to his right.
In the 70th minute, Larsson’s left wing corner was headed back into the danger zone by Brown, but central defensive partner John O’Shea just couldn’t get a touch at the back post.
Gleeson went close in the 74th minute when the ball was cleared to him, just outside the box and he sent a right-footed shot on the turn marginally over the bar.
Two minutes later, the deadlock was finally broken and in some style.
Sunderland broke with numbers and Johnson played a square ball to Gomez, 25 yards out, who struck a sweet left-footed shot which nestled in the far bottom corner.
Birmingham felt aggrieved after believing they should have been awarded a throw-in, in the run-up to the goal.
The hosts had a chance to level in the 79th minute when Brown’s backwards header lacked sufficient power and it fell to Clayton Donaldson, just inside the area, but his volley was straight at Pantilimon.
Donaldson went even closer with four minutes to go when Cotterill’s left wing cross was not properly headed clear by Sunderland and the Birmingham striker sent his scissor kick just wide from six yards out.
Birmingham were made to pay for that miss moments later, as Sunderland clinched victory.
Altidore powered his way through the home defence, before his shot was saved by Doyle.
But the ball only came out as far as Johnson, who planted it low into the far corner.
The third arrived for Sunderland with two minutes to go when substitute Emanuele Giaccherini broke at pace and fed Wickham down the left-hand side of the area.
Wickham kept his cool and planted it low into the far corner.
FULL-TIME Birmingham 0 Sunderland 3
BIRMINGHAM: Doyle, Eardley (Spector 33), Hall, Edgar, Robinson, Duffy (Novak 61), Gleeson, Caddis, Cotterill, Donaldson, Thomas. Subs not used: Randolph, Grounds, Davis, Gray, Johnstone. Booked: Thomas (53)
SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon, Jones, Brown, O’Shea, Vergini, Johnson, Larsson (Giaccherini 81), Bridcutt, Gomez, Wickham, Altidore. Subs not used: van Aanholt, Cattermole, Rodwell, Fletcher, Mannone, Buckley.