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Jan 242014

Capital One Cup Semifinal
Manchester United 2-1 Sunderland

Javier Hern ndez Manchest 011 An Old Trafford Soap OperaAt the end of it, watching a deliriously ecstatic Sunderland team celebrate, I felt happy for Phil Bardsley, Wes Brown and the incomparable John O’Shea. They won it fair and square and we didn’t. Had Our shambolic, mediocrity-riddled, self-pitying team of mostly second-raters owned just enough good luck to make it to the Capital One Cup final against Our arch rivals Manchester City, they were on to yet another hiding, anyway. Left with half a season to contemplate upon a plan to make it to fourth place in the Premier League table and making the final four of the European Champions League, David Moyes needs someone to slap him about the face and encourage him to pull his pitiful self together fast! Just who that someone might be is not for me to say. I’ve said from the beginning that what he deserves is the opportunity to last at least as long as Wilf McGuinness or Frank O’Farrell. Eighteen months: No more, no less! As he suffers, we shall suffer with him!

It was a very entertaining sort of knife-edge game. After overtime, the leftover crowd received the gift of an agita-inducing, hair-raisingly bizarre penalty shootout which produced only three successful attempts out of 10. Mentally and physically knackered by the end of the game, it’s not unfair to say they quit before the spot kick session even began. Aside from a calm easy goal put in by the ever lean-and-hungry Darren Fletcher, that is. After staggering with the body language of a prisoner, Danny Welbeck carelessly blasted his attempt over the crossbar. So exhausted that he trembled as he took deep breaths at the penalty spot, Adnan Januzaj tapped the ball tenderly into Sunderland goalie Vito Mannone’s waiting arms. Phil Jones–who certainly couldn’t use the tiredness excuse–blasted it higher than Welbeck. A true believer, even then, despite it all, I would’ve bet every banknote in my pocket that there was no way Rafael da Silva was going to choke. Yet he did. Hitting the ball softly, allowing Vito Mannone to make one more effortless save. Marcos Alonso and Ki Sung-yueng had already beaten De Gea with Sunderland’s second and third penalties and that was enough.

I wanted to feel sorry for David De Gea as he made fine saves from Craig Gardner, Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson, but the mediocre effort he made to stop Phil Bardsley’s powder-puff effort in the 119th minute of extra-time made me reconsider. How was it possible that a team David Moyes has trained so hard –too hard according to a multitude of pundits and other coaches–lost out in both the confidence and endurance stakes? Why hadn’t veterans like Patrice Evra and Tony Valencia taken spot kicks? Denuded of confidence, it’s possible to blame Moyes and say that their every last ounce of self-belief has been stripped away by the new regime.

United began energetically and the only comfort from the loss to Chelsea, the fine interplay of Danny Welbeck and Adnan Januzaj, made itself felt. Sunderland gave no quarter, however, and when it became instantaneously apparent that the referee, Lee Mason, was going to allow Lee Cattermole to get away with the kind of scything tackles only sanctioned by a couple of F.A. referees these days, United were already visibly unnerved. A last gasp wall erected to protect the slow, injury-prone pairing of Brown and O’Shea, ‘Clatters’ as he loves to be called, repeatedly waylaid Chicharito Hernandez, Januzaj, the always combat-reticent Welbeck and the frustration began to show. Why Moyes chose not to push Fletcher upfield to ‘deal’ with Cattermole, at least temporarily, beggars belief! At any rate, it becomes very clear when an only lightly-talented side has a player like Fabio Borini running back to play terrier defense that they’re in it to win it.

So it was a very pleasant surprise after numerous squandered half-chances were bottled by Welbeck and Januzaj in particular when United stole a goal in the 37th minute. Seconds after Fletcher came close, very unlucky in hitting the post, Januzaj dipped a corner into the penalty area. Welbeck reached for it, but miscued, and Evans was there, unmarked, to head the ball downward, before it took a wicked bounce into the net.

From then on it was a tied-up game of cat and mouse as United wasted a lot of energy attacking and Sunderland threatened convincingly in their counterattacks. Cooler heads prevailed as a patient Sunderland, well drilled by their manager Gus Poyet, waited out nervous Nelly United, knowing that, after four defeats in five games, United are very very psychologically vulnerable, especially minus their suspended talisman captain, center-back Nemanja Vidic. Chris Smalling actually came off quite well in combat with Steven Fletcher and Fabio Borini. He definitely showed bottle on the night. True, too, however, is the indisputable fact he was vulnerable to spinning high balls, especially after Adam Johnson came on as a substitute. One Craig Gardner lob had him flapping blindly while Borini was on the spot to hoover it up and then fire too softly at De Gea.

The Mackems’ manager, Gus Poyet, kept his nerve and they patiently waited to exert prolonged pressure on United until around the hour mark Normally lacking a cutting edge, the Premier League’s second-from-bottom side fully matched the champions and their two full-backs Bardsley and Alonso looked like the two most dangerous men on the field. Indeed Alonso almost executed a couple of half-chances and Bardsley, free as a bird, seemed to haves all the time in the world to try three speculative long-distance shots.

That, however, was the point when everything unraveled for United. Deep into extra-time, United were two minutes from Wembley when keeper David De Gea butterfingered Phil Bardsley’s shot off his weak foot. Suddenly Sunderland were on their way to Wembley. But the Mackems could not hold out for 120 seconds, either.and Javier Hernandez’s left-footed shot from close range into the top right corner after yet another Adnan Januzaj assist temporally spared De Gea a state of embarrassment.

Unfortunately, United then punished Old Trafford and their worldwide fan base by subjecting them to the soap operatic drama of penalties which descended into a tragic finalé.

With the good news that United will be signing Juan Mata from Chelsea, United fans can rest their wounded hearts and minds for a week before encountering Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Cardiff City. Hang in there, y’all!
Sunderlands left back Mar 006 An Old Trafford Soap Opera

Ivor Irwin

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