New low for Moyes
The anticipation before kick-off soon gave way to familiar feelings of frustration for Manchester United fans as Sunderland reached the Capital One Cup final on penalties at Old Trafford. Adam Bate was there to witness another alarming result for David Moyes...
By Adam Bate at Old Trafford
Last Updated: 23/01/14 10:52am
The buzz before the game was about the prospect of a record signing arriving at Old Trafford. And the electric atmosphere in the final seconds of extra time was extraordinary as Javier Hernandez's goal - underneath The Chosen One banner - provided the sort of Fergie Time moment these fans have been denied in recent months. Unfortunately, everything in between showed exactly what has been troubling these Manchester United supporters for much of the season.
A 2-1 deficit from the first leg of this Capital One Cup semi-final against Sunderland was always likely to be fraught with danger as the visitors had a lead they could fight to defend. However, United started as clear favourites to progress, despite their recent form that having seen them lose four of their five previous matches in 2014.
"This is such a big game for everybody involved," wrote David Moyes in his programme notes. "We all know that our club is going through changes at present, but I have a clear path in my mind and I know where we are going. In the short term, the best thing we can do is go and win our next game." United did get the only goal of normal time and won the match 2-1 after extra time but following a wretched penalty shootout there will be no papering over the cracks this time. This was another damaging loss.
As the home fans trudged back to the Metrolink with time to ponder, they might well wonder whether papering over the cracks is precisely what the signing of Juan Mata, the Chelsea playmaker on the brink of a move to the club, is expected to do. The Spaniard was the talk of the press room and the supporters sheltering from the rain around the concourse prior to kick-off and there was a tangible sense that the fans were lifted by the impending arrival of a world-class star.
The nerves that should have accompanied such a finely-balanced tie were replaced by excitement and there was plenty of reason to suspect that a United line-up that included Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez in attack with Shinji Kagawa and Adnan Januzaj in the wide positions would go for the throat of a team that remains in the Premier League drop zone. Instead it was the same old stuff on the pitch.
The home team played without tempo or style and it was far too easy for Sunderland to stifle their limited attacking plans. Januzaj was the only bright spot. Scythed down by Fabio Borini early on, he was soon up and dancing away from three challenges - showing that remarkable willingness to run at players when under heavy pressure that all the greats possess. There was a delicious reverse pass to Kagawa, then another to set up a Darren Fletcher chance before his corner finally brought the breakthrough with a Jonny Evans header.
Januzaj's finishing did let him down and there was a poorly-struck penalty at the death to ensure he was anything but the hero on a night that belonged to the Black Cats. But that shouldn't detract from the fact that the teenager is arguably one of the few things standing between Moyes and yet more fan anger. His No 44 shirt is now worn by countless youngsters around the ground and he has quickly become the symbol of this new United. A hope for the future.
The problem for Moyes is that conviction must surely be wavering regarding the Scot's suitability as the manager to oversee the development of Januzaj and others. Tom Cleverley may have pointed to bad luck in the build-up to this latest disappointment and doubtless there will be more of such talk following David de Gea's error for Sunderland's goal. But it would be blind ignorance to put all this down to misfortune.
"You can't keep saying they aren't doing enough," former United hero Gary Neville told the Sky Sports audience. "They have allowed the game to drift and haven't done enough. Go for the game. They don't sustain periods of pressure and get two or three goals quickly." He's right, of course. But is it in Moyes' mentality? After all, this is a man who appeared to spend much of the game barking orders of caution to his full-backs Rafael da Silva and Alex Buttner.
Indeed, throughout the latter stages United resorted to counter-attacking football. Against Sunderland. At home. If not quite hanging on then Moyes' men were certainly sitting back. It was a cautious approach, while supporters screamed for them to get up the pitch. Football by fear. You suspect the only thing worse for Manchester United fans than the feeling when the Sunderland goal went in was the feeling that it was coming.
There was a flippant suggestion doing the rounds ahead of the game that United would be better off losing this tie in order to avoid a beating at the hands of rampant rivals Manchester City at Wembley in March. After all, Moyes only has to ask West Ham boss Sam Allardyce to discover the perils of facing Manuel Pellegrini's side more times in a season than you absolutely have to. But perhaps the crueller joke is that Moyes is performing to par - his par. United's league record is currently identical to Everton's efforts last season. And just like at Everton, there'll be no cup glory.
As a result, Moyes was deadly serious about this Capital One Cup. He wanted and needed a trophy. Now it threatens to be a long hard slog through until May. He may soon have his statement signing to distract fans from the on-field gloom, while the returns of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney will help too. But Moyes simply isn't getting the best out of these players. Worryingly, there's little reason to believe he'll get the best out of Mata & Co either.