Sunderland's spluttering start to the new campaign has been maintained. Steve Bruce's side were jettisoned from a competition they might have aspired to win, beaten in extra-time by a Brighton and Hove Albion team whose own confidence continues to soar. The visitors rather skulked from this arena at the final whistle; a summer of upheaval has only prompted uncomfortable viewing to date.
Bruce cut a forlorn and increasingly frustrated figure on the touchline for long periods here. Nine new faces had been recruited in the closed season, but his team remains rather shapeless, a work in progress where all had hoped for immediate signs of improvement. The encouraging opening-day draw at Liverpool already feels like a mirage. The board are not exerting pressure on the manager as yet, but there are murmurings of discontent in the stands. Defeat at home by Newcastle on Saturday was painful to endure. Elimination to Championship opposition rubbed salt into fresh wounds.
This tie may have been extended into extra-time, but the Premier League side had only hinted for brief spells at the end of each period that they might stamp some authority on the occasion. At no point did they threaten to overwhelm opponents from the division below, even with over £28m worth of striking talent flung on to the pitch at the end. Bruce conceded that the inability to take what few opportunities were created was alarming. "That's what usually sets a Premier League team apart from the rest," he said. "It's fine margins." Those are going against him at present.
While his team remain so toothless, their problems will be prolonged. Asamoah Gyan had apparently not been fit enough to start, while Ji Dong-won and Connor Wickham are still adjusting to new surroundings. Stéphane Sessègnon was industrious but denied whenever he glimpsed a sight of goal. The weekend trip to Swansea already feels tricky, with Chelsea to visit Wearside after the international break. Bruce can look haggard even when things are going far better than this, but he rather sighed through his post-match duties here with a weight of expectation on his shoulders.
His team's lack of bite was damning. Brighton ended up with three full-backs playing across their rearguard, including the veteran assistant manager Mauricio Taricco, but only in the frantic last few minutes, with Gyan having joined Wickham on the field did they creak. Even so, they would not be breached. Albion have maintained their momentum from a startling campaign that claimed the League One title. There is a vibrancy to this club as well as its team, propelled as they are by the refreshing and increasingly impressive management of Gus Poyet. Brighton had been badly mauled at Stoke on their previous brush with Premier League opposition. This was a better indication of their progress than that FA Cup elimination last term.
They were the more impressive throughout. In Craig Noone and Ashley Barnes they boast attackers who glide menacingly into areas defenders detest, the latter skying wastefully over the bar in the opening exchanges after Craig Mackail-Smith's shot had been palmed out by Keiren Westwood. Barnes was denied again in the opening seconds after the break, Kieran Richardson diving in to suffocate his chance, with Mackail-Smith striking a post when slipped through by the excellent Liam Bridcutt.
This team revels in the slick style preached by their manager, with full-backs a blur of movement, invariably in the opposition half, and midfielders disciplined in dictating play from the centre. There were complaints that Iñigo Calderón's tumble over Westwood's challenge prompted a yellow card for a dive, but Mackail-Smith gleaned real reward in extra-time. Noone's pass and Richardson's error offered Alan Navarro time and space to centre, with the Scotland striker eluding Ahmed Elmohamady to nod in the winner.
Saturday's draw with Blackpool, when a two-goal lead was lost in stoppage time, remains the only blip on Albion's perfect start. "Honestly, I didn't expect this, and I'm very positive," said Poyet. "This win makes me feel like we're a good team. We're a proper team playing good football. Now controlling expectations will be down to me." Regardless, everything about this team feels upwardly mobile.
Sunderland will still aspire to thrive too this season, even with one less route to silverware already blocked, though their period of adjustment must be brief. The new personnel will understand better the pressure upon them after the last two results, with the focus now fixed upon improvement at the Liberty Stadium. "I'm confident we'll get it right in the end," added Bruce. The manager needs his luck to turn.