A late reprieve in extra time couldn’t save Manchester United as they exited the Capital One Cup on penalties, with Sunderland going onto meet Manchester City in the final after the two sides had finished 3-3 on aggregate.
Jonny Evans’s first-half header had looked to be enough to take United through on away goals, despite first having to negotiate 30 minutes of extra time. Instead a horrible error from David de Gea allowed Phil Bardsley’s shot to squirm in with just over a minute remaining, before United dramatically earned a stay of execution in a penalty shootout when Javier Hernandez tucked the ball home in the dying seconds.
But after a penalty shootout that will live long in the memory for all the wrong reasons, only Darren Fletcher could find the net for United, while Marcos Alonso and Ki Sung-Yueng were successful for Sunderland before Rafael missed the decisive kick that earned the Wearsiders their first appearance in a major final since 1992.
It will likely be Rafael and United’s other penalty culprits -- Danny Welbeck, Adnan Januzaj and Phil Jones -- as well as De Gea’s blunder that are scapegoated for this latest blow to a season that veers from one disappointment to another. However, the bigger reason for United’s failure to earn a final against their local rivals was their inability to build on their opening goal and instead play from the back foot from the second half onward.
On a day when Juan Mata’s signing became a mere formality, it was a performance which showed why United need all the quality players that they can get, but which also makes breaking the club’s transfer record for a player of his ilk somewhat odd. Again Januzaj carried far too much of the creative burden for a player in his stage of development, with Shinji Kagawa, who slinked up with him well in the opening half, being withdrawn early in the second period.
With Kagawa again starting on the left and then sacrificed as Moyes sought a more rigid shape, the treatment of a player with a similar skill set to Mata raises obvious questions about how the Spaniard will be deployed. And United’s inability to control the center of midfield again leaves the inescapable impression that United have far greater needs elsewhere.
Manchester United began as they did against Chelsea, pressing high with intensity. As at Stamford Bridge, though, it failed to produce an early goal. They did come close when, from a Januzaj free-kick, Hernandez saw a close-range header at the back post pushed away by Vito Mannone. While well organized, Sunderland created precious little in the opening period. Indeed, their only effort of note came when Fabio Borini’s spectacular half-volley from distance just cleared the crossbar.
Although United’s two most creative players, Januzaj and Kagawa, were forced to start from wide positions, the duo consistently came inside when their team had the ball in the attacking half. And there was little surprise that when they did so, United were all the better for it, including for the hosts’ best move of the opening period. Januzaj’s fine reverse pass found Kagawa in the box and, after a neat turn, the Japanese playmaker chipped a delightful ball back to the back post where Darren Fletcher arrived to volley against the post.
The resulting scramble led to a corner, from which United leveled up the aggregate score. With his back to goal, Welbeck hooked the delivery from the right across the face of goal and former United defender John O’Shea completely switched off to allow former Sunderland loanee Evans to arrive and head in the simplest of chances from close range.
Despite getting the goal, United failed to take a grip of the game and build on their advantage after the interval. In fact, with Sunderland coming out of the shell, the home side allowed themselves to repeatedly play from the back foot. Moyes’ decision to replace Kagawa with Antonio Valencia after an hour suggested that, despite being up against a side second-bottom of the Premier League, he was becoming more concerned with his side’s lack of defensive shape than their attacking creativity.
They still had Januzaj and it was again apparent how worryingly reliant United are on a rookie 18-year-old. While displaying flashes of his creativity, he also showed that he remains far from the finished product by wastefully shooting off target with several opportunities just outside the box.
Moyes had complained about a penalty being awarded against his side at the Stadium of Light, but his side were the beneficiaries of a poor refereeing decision on this occasion. Chris Smalling hauled down Steven Fletcher when he was the last man, with the only question being whether he had denied a clear goal-scoring opportunity. It should have at least been yellow and could have been red, instead not even a free-kick was awarded.
With no furher goals, the tie went to extra time, something which United were far happier than Sunderland about -- the decision to replace the injured Michael Carrick with Phil Jones again reflecting United’s what we have, we hold philosophy. Still, they could have sealed the tie when Januzaj played Hernandez clean through the middle but, lacking the legs to keep going, he curled a shot wide from 20 yards. When Bardsley blasted across the face of goal without a touch from a Sunderland player late on, it appeared that there would be no further incident. Instead came a most dramatic final two minutes of extra time.
First came De Gea’s inexplicable error as one of the few United players to have maintained his performance levels this season fumbled Bardsley’s tame low shot into the net. There were hints of the United of old when they produced an immediate, dramatic response when Januzaj did superbly to get down the left of the box before pulling back for Hernandez to turn the ball into the roof of the net.
But the current malaise that engulfs Manchester United was seen in the abject nature of their penalties. And when Rafael produced the decisive miss their fate was finally sealed and Sunderland had secured a place in the final that, after well over 200 minutes of action over the two legs, they richly deserved.