Manchester United suffered a third-straight defeat for the first time since 2001 as their prospects of landing a trophy took another blow, with a 2-1 defeat to Sunderland in the first leg of their Capital One Cup semifinal at the Stadium of Light. On the back of falling further off the Premier League pace and crashing out of the FA Cup to Swansea, both at Old Trafford, David Moyes will have been hoping for some relief on the road and to put himself in contention to land a first major trophy as a manager.
Instead the pressure continues to rise on a man who looks increasingly forlorn on the sidelines. An own goal from Ryan Giggs, under pressure from Phil Bardsley, gave Sunderland the lead in first-half injury time before United appeared to have rallied early in the second half and got back on level terms when Nemanja Vidic headed in a corner. But Tom Cleverley’s ridiculous challenge on Adam Johnson in the box just past the hour mark summed up the midfielder’s poor display and poor season to present Fabio Borini, on loan from United’s chief rivals Liverpool, to strike home from the penalty spot. The Italian held his nerve to give Sunderland the upper hand heading into the second leg at a ground that has been all too welcoming to visiting teams in recent weeks.
Moyes may again claim that his side have been hard done by in defeat, and in truth the match was fairly even on the balance of play. Yet against a side bottom of the Premier League, the champions were again far from laying siege to their opponents. Indeed, only a stunning save from David de Gea and some leniency shown by referee Andre Marriner in not handing Rafael a second yellow card prevented a potentially worse score-line for United. Without the injured Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, it was again an uninspiring display, with Adnan Januzaj the only man to stand out among the mediocrity.
For Sunderland it was further evidence of their improvement under Gustavo Poyet. And, having again selected a strong side, the Uruguayan will be hoping that having now beaten Chelsea and Manchester United in the League Cup, results can follow in the Premier League.
Sunderland began the brighter with Borini dragging an early shot wide and Marcos Alonso making a positive early contribution in his first appearance since arriving on loan from Fiorentina. United improved as the half wore on, but still fell short of asserting any degree of control and, with Cleverley and Antonio Valencia appearing completely devoid of confidence, there was an all-too familiar lack of creativity from the visitors’ midfield.
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The one United player providing some drive and inspiration was Januzaj. The 18-year-old, who announced himself on the wider stage with two outstanding goals when the sides last met, in October, thought he had got himself on the score-sheet at once more at the Stadium of Light, but the flag had already been raised as the ball bounced back to him from an offside Giggs.
By that point United’s veteran had made a far more positive contribution when another age-defying run concluded with him launching a shot from 25 yards that deflected up over Vito Mannone and came back off the cross bar.
It was to be Sunderland, though, who went into the break in front as United’s defending was found wanting. From Sebastian Larsson’s free-kick to the back post, two United players were left marking three opponents, with Jonny Evans caught in no-man’s land. That allowed Wes Brown to send the ball back across the six-yard box toward fellow former United defender Bardsley, only for Giggs to get the final touch past his own goalkeeper.
Likely given another pasting from Moyes at the interval, United initially gave a positive reaction. And within seven minutes they were back on level terms. From Cleverley’s corner, Vidic rose with authority above his former Manchester United defensive colleagues Brown and John O’Shea to power a header into the net.
From open play, though, United continued to be all-too predictable. Moyes had De Gea to thank for his side not going back behind quicker when the ball broke to Larsson in the box and his shot, though not struck as cleanly as he would have liked, required the Spaniard to fling himself across goal to keep it out.
The introduction of Johnson off the bench provided Sunderland with a spark that was largely missing from the visitors. Having already shown glimpses of his threat, the former Manchester City winger turned Cleverley with ease out on the right before surging just inside the box only to be halted by a clumsy and bizarre tackle by the United midfielder as he stepped across the Sunderland man. Borini duly tucked the penalty high to De Gea’s left.
The contrast from the days of Sir Alex Ferguson was all-too apparent as once more United failed to provide even a suggestion of a rousing response, with Januzaj’s flick over the bar the closest they came to getting back on level terms and preventing the latest blow to Moyes’s troubled reign.