Manchester United's last chance for silverware this season hangs by a thread. Another lacklustre performance was registered in Sunderland's Stadium of Light in this 2-1 defeat in the first leg of their Capital One Cup semifinal. That is three defeats in three games for United now. The supporters are beginning to despair.
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Sunderland are having a horrible season. After beginning with a manager who was inexperienced and controversial, they now find themselves rock bottom in the league and getting to know a new boss. They are one of the few clubs who can make Manchester United look like a carefree bunch this week.
The match, however, reflected the dour nature of the mood at both clubs. Sunderland were made to look slightly better than they were. This is the bottom team in the division, but they were not ruthlessly dismantled as they might have been by a more bloodthirsty side. United are wounded themselves right now.
United dominated possession in the first half but were unable to forge the decent chances that the club are famous for -- the closest being an optimistic 25-yard strike from Ryan Giggs that hit the bar. Adnan Januzaj also had a goal disallowed for offside just before half-time. The standard of play was not becoming of a cup semifinal. It was, at best, quite stodgy.
Then Sunderland scored. It could not have come at a worse time in the match or in general. Seconds before the teams were due to traipse off for half-time, Sunderland were awarded a free kick close to the United goal. The ball went wide before the delivery was turned in by Giggs under pressure at the far post. An own goal for the club's most decorated player. It was almost poetic in its indignity.
Manchester United's core support is terrific: the away fans outsung their Sunderland counterparts from the start to finish. Large patches of the home stadium revealed empty seats. United's fans deserve better than the fare they are witnessing right now.
News emerged before kickoff that Nemanja Vidic is not interested in renewing his contract and could leave for free in the summer. Despite turning his nose up towards the club who have nursed him through his various injury problems, Vidic started the match. This maybe says more about the injuries United have rather than the internal politics. All was forgiven when he powered in the equalising header.
United, minus their most effective players in Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Phil Jones, had struggled to wrest control of the game. Sunderland were growing in confidence with every passing minute; Vidic's header was gratefully received. The fans sang his name.
But still, United could not take advantage of the fortunes that had turned their way. Instead, the next good chance fell to Sunderland’s Steven Fletcher, whose powerful drive was kept out by the athletic David de Gea. The United No. 1 has been superb this season and without him they could be even further adrift in the league.
Seconds later, Tom Cleverley conceded a very clumsy penalty and could have been sent off. His trip on Adam Johnson was clear-cut and Fabio Borini walloped his spot-kick into the roof of the net with a minimum of fuss. Immediately afterwards, Rafael started flying around in a return to his undisciplined worst. It was a terrible five minutes for United. They were losing their heads.
Januzaj was front and centre of all of United's good efforts to equalise again, but few convinced. As the 90th minute approached, United had only registered three shots on goal throughout the match. It simply isn't good enough. That is the theme of United's season so far. Not good enough, and getting worse too.
Mark Payne is the author of "Fergie's Last Stand," now available in paperback.
Follow him on Twitter @MarkJPayne.