When the ball’s not rolling your way, the ball’s not rolling your way. Into extra-time having won in ninety minutes – had the away goals rule applied after ninety minutes, this would have been enough to see them squeeze through to the final – they were pinned back to almost certain defeat with a minute of extra-time left to play, but somehow they still they managed to find the briefest moments of time to force a penalty shoot-out. And then they lost the penalty shoot-out. Even though the other team missed three out of their five shots at goal.
On a night when the villains outshone the heroes by a factor of appoximately three to one, Manchester United imploded in the most improbable, spectacular, self-inflicted manner possible. Had Brian Glanville used it as a plot line in a new children’s novel called “Goalkeepers Are Different II: The Personal Inner Torment Of David De Gea,” it would have been laughed out of court as “too far-fetched to be credible” by the press and public alike. Where they found a way to lose, they found a way to lose. But there was a peculiar beauty in defeat of this nature. It was epic, sweeping, almost grandiose. Not that this will come as much of a crumb of comfort to their supporters today.
For Sunderland supporters, there may be an element of conflict about last night. One the one hand, absolute delight. This is their first Wembley cup final – not including play-off finals – since 1992. Their team’s league form this season has been patchy, but it’s nice to have something to celebrate. On the other hand, though, remember Brighton & Hove Albion in 1983? Remember Wigan Athletic last season? Remember Sunderland, in 1985? There may not be much science behind the idea that lengthy involvement in the cups adversely affects league form, but might be argued that this is A Thing now regardless, if only because managers and supporters have made it so. How might the players deal with that nagging doubt?
Still, though, Sunderland deserved to win the tie, overall. They came back as many times as Manchester United did, and it was they who had that one extra player whose nerve didn’t fail him in that shoot-out. If they show that much character throughout the rest of the Premier League season, the threat of relegation will soon become a rapidly fading memory. And while the gambler who values his money would bet on Manchester City to win the final with something to spare, this – well, more or less this – Manchester City team lost the FA Cup Final at the end of last season, albeit in the middle of a day of extraordinary scenes behind the scenes, as it were. Where there’s a ticket to the final, there’s hope. And on top of all of that, they can get a place in Europe should they beat Manchester City to go down.
They’re saying that Chelsea and Manchester United have agreed terms over the tranfer of Juan Mata from the former to the latter. There has been a great deal of talk this afternoon on how he will fit into the team. Many Manchester United supporters will be likely now be thinking something along the lines of, “Just crowbar him in, somewhere.” And just this transfer alone explains why symptoms of panic might start emerging from Old Trafford soon. Manchester United can just flip open the cheque book and spend £45m on a player even though the owners have cost the club £600m since they took hold of the keys to it, and that is in no small part because that’s what twenty years of consecutive Champions League football does for a club. Small wonder if there are some furrowed brows on the faces of the sharp-suited men who are walking the corridors of Old Trafford today.
It was, however, the penalty shoot-out at the end of the match that best encapsulated the absurdity of the evening and, whilst to see such a penalty shoot-out is a rarity and in some respects an honour, this was a penalty shoot-out that could only have taken place in England on such a high profile occasion. Four English players took shots at goal in that shoot-out. None of them scored. And all of this coming six months before a World Cup finals. Even to say that, however, feels optimistic in a sense. Merely qualifying from the group stages will be an achievement in Brazil in this summer, after all. Perhaps England’s five selected players in a penalty shoot-out will one day take their turns without channelling every moment of collective national self-doubt into their feet at a point when focus and confidence are what really matter more than anything else in the world. But, on the other hand, they missed four out of four.
As the hangovers clear this morning inevitable inquests will begin, but can anybody legislate for the sort of drama that unfolded at Old Trafford last night? The growing band of David Moyes’ critics will argue that Manchester United should not have been in the position of needing moments of serendipity or penalty kicks to beat the team that sits one place off the bottom of the Premier League, that none of this tragi-comedy would have happened had Sir Alex still been in charge of the team. Those who have spent the last few months calling for the sorcerer’s apprentice to be given time, meanwhile, might well be starting to look nervously at their watches. Perhaps this all stings Manchester United supporters more than most because of its unfamiliarity. Perhaps they are already starting to feel numb from it all. Last night, however, was another symbol of how times have changed at Old Trafford since this time last year.
Sunderland supporters will have a spring in their step this morning, and understandably so. Those who ventured from Wearside to Manchester last night were gifted one of those ‘I was there’ moments of which supporters dream and it will be with them forever. The Stadium of Light jury will continue to deliberate over Gus Poyet and this team, but last night was not a time for thinking too hard about the future. Last night was about lurching from Old Trafford, dazed and buoyed, wondering whether this had all been some sort of unbelievable dream. For Manchester United supporters, meanwhile, there is perhaps only the consolation that when the good times do return, they may just taste all the sweeter for nights like this. It is but a crumb of consolation, but crumbs that were just about all that was available on a night when the League Cup contrived to throw its script from the window yet again.
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