An all-Manchester Capital One Cup final? Manchester United sure hope so.
A day after bitter rival Manchester City defeated West Ham 3-0 to score a 9-0 aggregate victory to advance to the tournament's championship, United will have a chance to do the same on Wednesday versus Sunderland.
Things just won't even remotely be as easy for the Red Devils. Fabio Borini's penalty in the 64th minute gave Sunderland a surprise 2-1 victory on Jan. 7, leaving an already frustrated United at arguably a low point. Sunderland are currently an outfit facing relegation—a club that United should pick apart even away from the friendly confines of Old Trafford.
But, as has been the case for most of the 2013-14 campaign, the best-laid plans went to waste.
David Moyes' side looked like a complete mess then in losing their third straight, managing only three shots on goal and watching club legend Ryan Giggs knock through an own goal. From top to bottom and side to side, it was the type of disappointment that has enveloped Moyes' inaugural season at the world's most famous football club.
And things have not improved much over the past fortnight. A promising 2-0 victory against Swansea was wiped out of folks' minds with a 3-1 road loss to Chelsea over the weekend. Manchester United are now six points out of a Champions League berth with time quickly running out in the winter transfer window.
A year after winning a league title, things like the Capital One Cup may be United's only consolation. Down a goal in the aggregate and heading back home, it will be interesting to see how this match plays out. Here's a quick preview of Wednesday's second leg.
Gus Poyet is not someone to mince words. The Sunderland boss knows where his team stands in the worldview. He's not afraid to put everything out on the table—especially when it means sending a glaring spotlight right at his rival's way.
"If somebody needs to win, then of course it's Manchester United," Poyet said, per Jason Mellor of The Mirror. "Everybody in the world will be expecting them to win, but because of that, there's more pressure on them."
"It could be a must-win for them because it’s a possibility to win a trophy, it’s a possibility of beating their biggest rivals Manchester City [in the final] to win a trophy. It’s an important game for Manchester United, for sure."
Well then. Tell us all how it really is. Now even though Poyet is merely stating the obvious—that his team is a heavy, heavy underdog and pressure is squarely on Moyes to win—but putting it out in the papers like that is an admission worthy of slight amusement.
It's also fair to note the room for excuses is running thin.
David McDonnell of The Mirror reported that Wayne Rooney will make his return for the Capital One Cup semis, and Robin van Persie may not be too far behind either. Rooney has missed each of United's last six matches going back to New Year's Day, coinciding with the worst of this downturn. Van Persie is unlikely to be making a return for Wednesday, but the cavalry is slowly coming home to roost.
The question here will be Rooney's form. Remember, this is not a man only dealing with recovery from a groin injury. Rooney has again become the subject of widespread transfer rumors, as Mark Ogden of The Telegraph reported he's set for a £25 million transfer to Real Madrid. Those are a lot of distractions for one player—even one as gifted as Rooney.
Should Rooney, who still somehow leads the club with nine goals and as many assists, be able to push the distractions aside, United should be able to mount pressure against the Sunderland defense. Even when under fire, Rooney has always thrived at Old Trafford.
Sunderland themselves have gotten stellar play from Adam Johnson of late. The 26-year-old winger has been in stellar form, putting together a hat-trick versus Fulham earlier this month and scoring a critical goal over the weekend. Johnson, a former Manchester City occasional player, has never had much success versus United, though, so something will have to give.
Here is where we must reconcile inherent biases versus current reality. Any matchup between Manchester United and Sunderland inherently favors the former. There is just too much history of United being world-class and Sunderland being merely a fine club that hangs on to just avoid relegation. It is impossible to not reconcile these facts when judging the matchup.
Current reality would seem to show these two aren't separated by as much as you'd think. Sunderland have quietly won three of their last four matches and gotten at least a point in all four. They've recovered nicely in Premier League play from a miserable start and will probably avoid relegation by the end of the season.
Which side will advance?
Manchester United have dropped four of their last five. They've been Premier League's biggest disappointment. There is so much talent on the club roster that United fans have found themselves in a perpetual state of frustration and anger. I'm half-surprised no one has gotten a tomato to the face.
And yet "current reality" is still misleading. Over the larger sample, Manchester United are the far superior club. Their 37 points in Premier League are more than double that of Sunderland. And the Red Devils are playing at home, before fans who aren't going to tolerate anything short of dominance against a second-tier outfit.
Manchester United wins and does so by enough to take the aggregate.
Score: Manchester United 2, Sunderland 0
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