On Wednesday night, with Manchester City coasting through to Wembley the night before, Manchester United hosted Sunderland for the second leg of their League Cup tie. After a first leg in which United lost 2-1, they needed to be inspired to bring the game back level and give themselves a chance of making it to the final.
A few changes were made as David De Gea started in goal, with Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling in the centre as Buttner and Rafael stood on the left and right. The midfield quartet was made up of Fletcher, Carrick, Kagawa and Januzaj. Finally, Welbeck and Hernandez stood up front. With a strong line up and a score line tentatively placed, fans and neutrals may have been in for an interesting tie.
And indeed, what a tie it was. In an open game, the first half saw United bring the game back level before the break, when Jonny Evans knocked in from close range after Welbeck’s shot. With away goals only counting in extra time, United needed another to see themselves go through in normal time.
The second half continued to play out fairly evenly with both sides having their moments although neither looked particularly potent going forward. Smalling was arguably lucky to stay on the pitch when he looked as though he fouled Fletcher as Sunderland were breaking, but nothing was given. Johnson had a good chance to put his side back in front on aggregate from Borini’s cross but Buttner deflected his effort behind. United also had chances through Januzaj, who seemed to take it upon himself to try to get the winner multiple times, be it through free kicks or attempts.
However, it was not to be as the referee blew for full time and the game went to extra time, with United only needing to hold their lead to progress. Hernandez was handed a golden opportunity to put the game to bed, when Januzaj, who had broken down the right, played a perfect pass across to Hernandez, who took a poor first touch before trying to place it around the goalkeeper from just outside the area, but missed wide
As the final whistle drew ever closer, it looked as though United may have done enough, until with only minutes to go, with Sunderland playing the ball across the box, former United player Bardsley scuffed a fairly innocuous shot that looked like it would be easily covered by De Gea. Except it was disaster for the Spaniard as he failed to control the ball as it bobbled off his hands into the net to draw the game at 1-1 and put United behind on aggregate.
More drama was to follow though, as United responded. Januzaj played a one-two that played him close to the line on the left side of the area, he played the ball across to find Hernandez who scored from close range into the roof of the net to give United a 2-1 lead and force penalties.
- Gardner stepped up to take the first penalty and blasted his effort over the bar.
- Welbeck stepped up for United, and he too missed the target.
- The third penalty was taken by Fletcher, but his effort lacked power and was easily saved by De Gea.
- It would not be until the fourth penalty, when Darren Fletcher stepped up that one would go in, as the Scotsman placed his effort low into the corner.
- Alonso stepped up and brought the shootout level.
- Januzaj stepped up with the chance to put United ahead. After fiddling with his boots and stepping up for a short run up, he meekly put his effort to his left and was easily saved by Mannone.
- Ki put Sunderland ahead after with a well taken effort.
- Phil Jones was next for United, but he too blasted his effort over to put Sunderland within one spot kick of reaching the final.
- Former Manchester City man Johnson walked up for his effort but De Gea saved well to give United a glimmer of hope.
- Rafael stepped up with a chance to force sudden death, but Mannone guessed correctly to save a tame effort to put Gus Poyet’s Sunderland through to the final of the League Cup to face Manchester City.
After dramatic events at Old Trafford, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) All credit to Sunderland
The game was actually fairly even as a contest, making for a fascinating tie where either side could have won it. After United went ahead before half time one might have thought they would push on in search of a winner but the visitors showed no signs of laying down as they continued to battle through to the end. Throughout they showed good energy and looked as though they had grabbed the winner through De Gea’s howler until United forced penalties almost immediately after. One may have thought Sunderland would get deflated from that and when they missed their first two penalties, the odds looked to be in United’s favour.
However, it was not to be for David Moyes as he watched his side fail to score all but one of their penalties as Sunderland jubilantly went through to the final.
2) United failed to push on
It must also be acknowledged that United failed to push on after getting the first goal. The second half saw them drop back a little and try to see out the game, although another goal would have been needed to progress to the final. Januzaj looked to be the biggest source of inspiration but his efforts went amiss. Although the visitors did not test De Gea all that much, they got their bit of luck in the dying moments of extra time when the Spaniard gifted them a potential winner.
As a whole the performance lacked that cutting edge and on the night, Sunderland seemed to want it more. Whether that is a damning indictment of Moyes’ tactics or simply a case of the players not performing to the standards expected, it was all too familiar a scene for United fans this season.
3) The luck factor
It is easy in moments like this to look back and say it was typical in a season where United have not performed and that questions lie at the feet of David Moyes. However, despite the performance, one cannot account for moments where the situation simply does not go their way. Bardsley’s goal was one of those freak moments, an erroneous moment from one of United’s most consistent performers in De Gea. It was howler and coupled with injuries to both Carrick and Buttner was a continuation of the moments that simply have not been in Moyes’ favour this season. Could United have put the game to bed earlier? Yes, of course, but in these games it only takes one moment to swing the game one way or the other.
4) Penalties Old Trafford will never forget
The match will be most memorable for what were some of the worst penalties seen in a competition. The fact that United were only able to put away one of their five made for extraordinary viewing. Welbeck and Jones failed to find the target at all, while Rafael and Januzaj saw their efforts easily saved. Only Fletcher showed real composure with his effort as he put it away beyond the reach of Mannone.
It was a clear indication of the way in which the pressure simply got to players who have rarely been in such a situation for United. The likes of Evra and Hernandez perhaps could have stepped up, Valencia too, but instead the duties were left to some of the less experienced among the side and it turned out disastrously.
5) Fletcher’s incredible efforts
It is hard not to continue to be amazed by Darren Fletcher and his return from illness. To play 120 minutes in which he gave his all is something to marvel and appreciate. In a midfield that has struggled and in a side that at times struggled for inspiration, he was a reassuring figure of experience at the heart of the midfield as young Januzaj set about trying to provide the spark going forward.
One optimistic point that fans can look to is the potential arrive of Juan Mata from Chelsea. It remains to be seen what kind of impact the Spaniard will have at Old Trafford, but fans will be hoping for an Ozil-esque boost to confidence to give David Moyes something to smile about.