Calamitous United fall to Sunderland

Posted by Mark Payne

Manchester United crashed out of the league cup 2-1 on penalties at the end of a calamitous extra-time period in the most dramatic fashion possible. It was far from convincing and United still look like a team in need of help. The manner of this defeat can only leave a sour taste in the mouth.

“Our aim is to win tonight or at worst be 1-0 ahead after 90 minutes to take it to extra time” said David Moyes before the match. It is hard to envisage his predecessor Sir Alex Ferguson taking a similar attitude, but Moyes' words were oddly prescient.

The bizarre rules that are attached to this competition mean that away goals do not count until after 90 minutes have been played. As such, with United one nil up at full time, the game was extended for 30 minutes. This additional playing time is something United may live to regret. The sight of Michael Carrick pulling up with injury is not something the champion's midfield needs right now.

As the clock ticked down, United were holding on until Phil Bardsley, lining up Sunderland’s first shot on target of the night, aimed straight at David de Gea. United's No. 1 keeper spilled the ball and watched it bobble into the side of the goal. At that point, at the end of two hours of toil, United were out.

But Adnan Januzaj came back. United have fallen to late goals several times this season and this would simply have been another heartbreak. Instead, Januzaj broke forward, exchanging passes with Darren Fletcher before unleashing a cross that Javier Hernandez reached at the far post. Old Trafford melted into euphoria. United just about deserved it and penalties beckoned.

The shootout that followed was an embarrassment for all involved. Sunderland goalkeeper Vito Mannone saved from Rafael da Silva in sudden death, but several kicks were missed prior to that. Phil Jones and Januzaj both missed. But the game should have been made safe inside 90 minutes.

There was a disappointing cynicism to Sunderland in the first half as their players set out to niggle their way through the contest. This was most evident in the manner Adam Johnson produced the dive of the season after being tackled by Danny Welbeck. Johnson wasted the resulting free kick, but the dark arts were part of the away team’s game plan.

United moved forward smoothly from the outset, with Januzaj and Shinji Kagawa playing well and linking up with an energetic Welbeck. Sunderland were determined to keep their foot in, though, and broke up the field effectively on occasion. United’s defence has been far from imperious recently and the visitors intended to test it.

On the evidence of this performance, United's reported new signing, Juan Mata, might be asked to play left-back in his first outing for his new club. Alexander Buttner brought his usual enthusiasm to the role but precious little composure. His defensive work was negligible and he gave the ball away far too readily. It was not the performance of a confident player.

Old Trafford has been a nervy arena in recent months. Manchester United goals tend to be greeted with relief rather than triumph nowadays. That was certainly the case when Jonny Evans headed home a loose ball in the first half to level the tie. The sense of entitlement United would have brought to a game like this in the past is long gone. They feel like they can lose to anyone.

Midway through the second period news started filtering through that Chelsea had accepted United’s bid for Mata. The excitement amongst the home fans about this is tangible, and the match at hand almost took second billing to the news. Sunderland began to get a foothold.

Steven Fletcher and Fabio Borini linked up on the hour to fashion a chance for Ki Sung-Yueng but couldn’t quite break through United’s back line. After the horror show at Stamford Bridge this past weekend, this was a much better evening for United's centre-backs. Chris Smalling and Evans acquitted themselves diligently throughout and Rio Ferdinand must wonder if he will ever play for United again.

United themselves will need to play next week against Cardiff. Mata should join a squad short on confidence. The champions are a sorry bunch right now.

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