Capital One Cup Semi-Final Second Leg
Manchester United 2 Sunderland 1 (aet)
(aggregate 2-2; Sunderland won on pens)
Unlike the quick gun to the head applied by Chelsea on Sunday, there are some defeats that offer a slow, lingering death. When it finally comes, you understandably wish you’d gone in a more decisive way and saved yourself considerable agony.
So it was here. United weren’t bad enough to lose through a swift capitulation, but weren’t good enough to seize control of the game against disciplined, but hardly dynamic opposition. Having brought the aggregate scores level at half-time thanks to a Jonny Evans header, United looked poised to take this second leg by the scruff of the neck in the second half, following a first that had been more about patience and careful breaking down of a stubborn defence. In truth, United had only sporadically threatened to do so, Fletcher and Welbeck both going close before the breakthrough came.
Instead, it was Sunderland who assumed a tighter control of proceedings after half-time. United had chances, most notably through Januzaj, but rarely did the Reds manage to string moves together of any substance. The young Belgian once again was head and shoulders above anyone else, something that once again shed an unflattering light on the dearth of creativity among his team-mates.
Just as extra time was drawing to a close, Sunderland supplied what appeared the killer blow yet only turned out to be the first in a series of deaths by, if not a thousand cuts, then at least half a dozen. Ex-United reserve Phil Bardsley hit an opportunist effort that De Gea appeared to have covered, only for the keeper to help the ball on its way into the net.
If we thought that was the end, we under-estimated this current United side’s ability to drag us back from the edge of defeat, only for defeat to come around anyway. Chicharito, who’d spurned a chance earlier in extra-time when put through by a delightful ball from Januzaj, this time pounced from close range in typical style to snatch the equaliser.
The penalty shoot out that followed might be the most revealing moment of United’s season so far. De Gea did his job and, in combination with some wayward shooting, kept Sunderland to just two successful efforts. The problem was that United managed merely one, through Darren Fletcher, and there must be questions asked about the rather odd selection of penalty takers who stepped up around him, most of whom got closer to the Sunderland fans in the top tier of the East Stand than they did to the goal.
OK, so Welbeck was an understandable penalty taker, and perhaps Januzaj, though there’s a clear argument for keeping a player of his inexperience away from a situation like that, however great his quality. But Phil Jones and Rafael? I don’t blame them for a moment – clearly they stepped up and had the courage to put themselves on the line for the team, but if I was given the choice of having one of them take a penalty to save my life, I think I’d rather take my chances with a firing squad. Although, in the absence of Van Persie and Rooney, we were short on spot-kick takers, and Chicharito may have an excuse because he was undergoing a pretty vigorous leg massage at the end, there were more senior players who you would have assumed would have been more likely participants in the shoot out, who stood watching while their well-meaning but youthful colleagues did what clearly didn’t come naturally.
A dismal season, then, gets worse. Ultimately, a better effort from United would have spared us this dramatic finale anyway but, truthfully, on the night, you would find it hard to make a clear case for the Reds being the better side. We were disjointed, unimaginative, lacking fluency and control. The one silver lining might be that defeat to Sunderland, however painfully applied, is infinitely preferable than being taken apart by city at Wembley. Hard to swallow, I know, but at the moment a sadly accurate appraisal of how things stand, I fear.