It was supposed to be the night that David Moyes got Manchester United back on track to reach the Capital One Cup final but Sunderland's players, manager and fans had other ideas. Adam Bate looks back on a dramatic evening that saw the Black Cats' spirit and skill carry them to Wembley...
By Adam Bate at Old Trafford
Last Updated: 23/01/14 10:49am
If the day had belonged to Manchester United and their pursuit of potential club record signing Juan Mata, the night was all Sunderland's. This was a heroic effort from Gus Poyet and his team as they displayed the sort of tenacity, work rate, organisation, courage and sheer bloody-mindedness that should not only keep them in the Premier League but will also have fans daring to dream of a first major trophy since 1973 when they go to Wembley in March.
Sunderland had taken 9,000 supporters to this Capital One Cup semi-final second leg. And didn't Manchester know it as they swarmed around the city, belting out their anthems from Piccadilly to the Northern Quarter. Once in the Old Trafford cauldron, the noise intensified and there were loud cheers as the players emerged to warm-up, with much of the chanting aimed at goalkeeper Vito Mannone - a foreboding sign of what was to come, albeit nearly four exhausting hours later.
With such vocal support, it was perhaps no surprise that Sunderland should perform with such endeavour from the outset. Fabio Borini, the man who had given the Black Cats a 2-1 lead going into the game from the first leg, closed down opponents with manic enthusiasm. Adam Johnson produced a committed display on the other flank, while Steven Fletcher battled away in the lone forward role. The rest of the Sunderland team were a picture of discipline and organisation.
There was experience at the back in the form of the ex-United trio of John O'Shea, Phil Bardsley and Wes Brown with the ebullient presence of Marcos Alonso - handed the tricky task of dealing with Adnan Januzaj - complementing them well. Among the midfield three, Jack Colback provided the quiet determination with Lee Cattermole the overtly conspicuous leadership. And in Ki Sung-Yueng, Sunderland had the most composed midfielder on the pitch.
Ki played an important role in the first half an hour as Sunderland prioritised the need to retain possession when given the chance. The visitors had a creditable 45 per cent of the ball before the break and that was a testament to their composure. It was clear that Poyet wanted to be positive within the constraints of the structure and he cut a typically animated figure on the touchline - firstly, Ki to press the ball. Then Colback to press. But never both. Shape was everything.
Given their fastidious approach, it must have been particularly disappointing to concede from a corner in the latter stages of the first half when Borini failed to vacate the six-yard box and played Jonny Evans onside. It felt like the moment for Old Trafford's visitors to buckle. And yet, as United failed to push on, Sunderland did not panic. In fact, they seemed to grow in confidence as the contest developed and United's own nerves kicked in.
With Borini full of running, a chance was carved out for Johnson only for the winger to see his shot blocked. Then Alonso drilled a bouncing ball just wide of David de Gea's left-hand post. That Poyet did not make his first substitution until eight minutes from the end of normal time, said much for how content he was with his players' efforts. With a difficult balancing act required between defence and attack, there was a sense throughout that he'd got that conundrum spot on.
But while Poyet deserves credit for his pre-match preparation and in-game management, the element of control that he'd clung to early on was gone in the later stages as the game opened up. Sunderland needed their share of luck - as the Uruguayan coach admitted in his press conference - and they used some of it up as Javier Hernandez missed a one-on-one before Danny Welbeck spurned another chance to break shortly afterwards.
But when Bardsley's big moment came, it was not against the run of play. Pressure was building on United, even if the chances weren't flowing. It was David de Gea who cracked - the Spaniard spilling a well-struck shot and allowing it to roll agonisingly into the corner of the net with just a minute on the clock. Cue wild scenes: Jubilant fans with their tops off and Bardsley, a focal point of frustration and anger just months ago, now the architect of such joy.
Such are the highs and lows of football that the same player was flat on his back, utterly dejected just moments later as Javier Hernandez scooped the ball into the top of the net to level the tie on aggregate in stoppage time. As United celebrated, eyes turned to the Sunderland players. The slump was visible and it was hard to conceive how they could possibly raise themselves for a penalty shootout.
Perhaps that was reflected in the visitors' first two kicks as substitute Craig Gardner spooned over before Fletcher shot tamely to De Gea's right. But Poyet revealed afterwards that there was no defeatism in the camp. "The players were asking for the penalties," he told reporters. "There was a fight between Bardsley and Ki for the fourth. You don't see that often." Indeed, it was the defending Premier League champions who lacked belief and against such surprisingly punch-drunk opponent it was the tired legs of Sunderland that prevailed. Mannone the hero, saving from Rafael.
It was thoroughly deserved. Just reward for a manager who got his plans right all evening and a set of players who have put the pride back into this club. The menacing presence of Manchester City awaits in the final but as the Sunderland supporters danced and sang their way back to the city centre, it was obvious that was a story for another time. On paper this was a second defeat in 11 games for Poyet's men. In actuality, it was a win they'll talk about on Wearside for years to come.