For 45 minutes of the Capital One Cup final against Sunderland, memories of Manchester City’s disastrous last visit to Wembley loomed large. After their 1-0 defeat to Wigan Athletic in last May’s FA Cup final, City again found themselves failing to backup their clear advantage in quality by matching the intensity and hunger of their opponents. And through Fabio Borini’s fine early goal for Sunderland, they trailed going into the interval.
But under Manuel Pellegrini, this is a far more harmonious unit than the days of the divisive Roberto Mancini. And City emerged from what must have been a sobering intermission with the mentality to allow their ability to come to the fore. And it did so in spectacular fashion. In the space of two minutes, Sunderland keeper Vito Mannone, barely tested to that point, found himself beaten by sensational strikes from first Yaya Toure and then Samir Nasri.
It was a bitter blow for a Sunderland side that were exceptionally well organized under Gus Poyet and played with the desire and no little quality that had seen them beat Chelsea and Manchester Untied to get to their first major final in 22 years. They recovered well, too, after the initial shock of falling behind. Ultimately, though, they just didn’t have enough to prevent City from lifting the first trophy of the season, which was secured by a 90th minute strike from substitute Jesus Navas.
Whether this proves to be the first of silverware of a glory-laden season, as will be the want and expectation of those in power at the Etihad, will depend on whether they can match the drive they showed in the second half and whether they can paper over the still-treacherous cracks at the back.
Sunderland will be disappointed, but have no reason to be disheartened. If they continue to replicate this performance, then a second visit to Wembley this season, in the FA Cup, is not out of the question. What should be out of the question, with displays of this type, is relegation from the Premier League.
Sunderland set the mood early with some fierce tackles, not least from Lee Cattermole. Still, there were some positive signs early on from City, too. Martin Demichelis had a shot blocked following a corner, while Sergio Aguero, returning after a month out, provided a positive sign of his fitness with a strong shot that Vito Mannone palmed away.
But just seconds after that attempt, Sunderland were in front with a trademark sucker punch. After Fernandinho lost the ball on the edge of the opposition box, Adam Johnson launched a long pass forward that left Borini up against City’s two center-backs. Demichelis, whose side it was to cover, was breezed past before the Italian shrugged off a meek challenge from Vincent Kompany. Borini still had much to do, but accomplished it with a superb low driven finish past Costel Pantilimon.
The rest of the first half went perfectly to plan for Poyet. With Cattermole providing a shield and often dropping back into the defense, Sunderland plugged the gaps that City were looking to exploit. That compactness worked a treat against a City side that, with David Silva and Nasri cutting in from either flank, sorely lacked width.
One of City’s only openings came when Aguero sprinted past Marcos Alonso down the right and put in a cross that Nasri was unable to take into his path effectively to provide a genuine threat with his prodded shot. Borini proved a star performer on the defensive end too when he headed a deflected corner over his own crossbar from inside the six-yard box.
But the greater intensity was with Sunderland. And they nearly had a two-goal lead to celebrate at the interval. The flag stayed down despite Borini being clearly offside from Sebastian Larsson’s flick, allowing the goal-scorer to run clear through on goal. This time, though, Kompany hared back at him and made an outstanding saving challenge.
That tackle looked even more crucial after City came out with a storming start to the second half to turn the final on its head. Toure had been the embodiment of City’s lethargy in the opening 45 minutes, but with 10 minutes of the second period gone, the man who so regularly sets the tempo for his team, brought their performance to life.
Zabaleta rolled the ball back to him 25 yards from goal with little looking on, but first time he curled the ball perfectly into top corner of the net leaving Mannone with no chance. There may be doubt whether Toure was going for a shot or a teammate at the back post, but his reaction certainly suggested it was intended and he most definitely warrants the benefit of the doubt.
Before Sunderland could even adjust to being dragged level, they found themselves behind with a strike of equal class. From a long ball forward, Ageuro showed fine control before finding Aleksandar Kolarov. The full-back’s teasing low cross deflected off a Sunderland boot and fell invitingly for the in-rushing Nasri on the edge of the area and the Frenchman dispatched it with an unstoppable strike with the outside of his right boot.
Sunderland can be proud of their response as they tried to take the game to their opponents in search of an equalizer. Goals, though, are not something that they have found easy to come by this season and they showed why late on. Despite plenty of endeavor, substitute Steven Fletcher twice failed when chances presented themselves, first shooting straight at Pantilimon and then haplessly knocking the ball out of play with a chance to shoot at the back post.
Just to emphasize where the greater cutting edge lie, City made the game safe with a devastating counter attack in the final minute of the 90. Toure was again heavily involved, ambling forward to the edge of the box before laying it off to his right for Navas, who fired low past Mannone at his near post to ensure the League Cup was heading back to Manchester for the first time in 38 years.