Capital One Cup Semi-Final
Sunderland 2-1 Manchester United
Well, at least this time we get a chance to put things right in a couple of weeks. But there’s no hiding from the fact that this was the third defeat in seven days for United, something that seems almost unthinkable, and once again it came against a side who, for all their endeavour, really shouldn’t have posed much of a challenge to a team that, while still missing Rooney and Van Persie, was close to United’s best available eleven. Despite that, once again we found ourselves chasing the game deep into the second half. Not for the first time this season only Januzaj looked to be capable of pulling us back into it, but ultimately he was unable to repeat the heroics of his last visit to the Stadium of Light.
It wasn’t as if Sunderland enjoyed any great periods of dominance in the game. They had the best of the possession in the early stages but United gradually found their rhythm and, with Giggs and Januzaj interchanging positions cleverly, the two began to cause problems. After twenty-five minutes the Sunderland defence backed off and allowed Giggs the room to unleash a shot that was deflected onto the bar. Januzaj then had the ball in the net when his shot deflected back to him off Giggs, who was in an offside position, and he hammered home the rebound.
Despite those chances, it was Sunderland who grabbed the lead in first half stoppage time, courtesy of two former United players and one current one. An unmarked Wes Brown latched onto Larsson’s long free kick to stab a dangerous cross into the area and, with Phil Bardsley hovering, Giggs could only turn the ball into his own net. In truth there had been perhaps too much of an air of easy composure about the Reds before that, a sense of relief that they were in a game that, for once, they didn’t absolutely need to win. They’d exuded a kind of control that perhaps, for change, had made them appear almost too comfortable.
If that was the case, the goal robbed them of any complacency and United intially came out in the second half showing purpose and were level within seven minutes: a Giggs free kick was headed out of play by Fletcher but, from Cleverley’s corner, Vidic rose in time-honoured fashion at the far post to head the equaliser.
The largely unemployed De Gea made a brilliant save to deny Larsson as Sunderland pushed forward to regain the lead. Unfortunately, he was called upon again within minutes when Tom Cleverley was adjudged to have brought down substitute Johnson inside the area. It was a close call but a foolish challenge from Cleverley, who had no need to be trailing his leg so temptingly in front of the winger. The on-loan Liverpool forward Borini stepped up and there was nothing De Gea could do to prevent his penalty from crashing into the roof of the net.
Johnson’s introduction had added an extra dimension to the home attack and United had a fairly mild storm to weather, though that’s been enough in recent times quickly to become a downpour on occasions. At the other end, Januzaj fizzed a right footed shot just wide of the post and then saw a neat flick narrowly clear the bar. Sadly, there was no cavalry charge of old from a United side who, once again, looked unsure of themselves and, the young Belgian excepted, largely lacking ideas of how to penetrate the ten man wall that quickly formed around the Sunderland penalty area.
It’s worth, of course, putting it into perspective and reminding ourselves that last time we were at this stage in this competition we managed to recover a similar deficit against far more dangerous opponents. Many of the personnel involved are still with us but, despite that, even those who, like me, are prepared to back David Moyes to the hilt for as long as it takes, have to admit that this currently looks a very different United side from that one.