Rarely in recent times can a League Cup fixture have been so important. Seventh in the Premier League and dumped out of the FA Cup, the Capital One Cup now represents Manchester United’s best – perhaps only – realistic shot at silverware in a season that has lurched from one crisis-of-confidence to another. While it is easy for supporters to find themselves wrapped up in media hyperbole, there is little doubt fundamental changes for the negative have taken place at Old Trafford since David Moyes was appointed in July 2013. The question remains whether United reached a nadir in defeat to Swansea City at the weekend, or if the worst is still to come.
Certainly, while Moyes’ squad is low on confidence, the Scot should take heart from United’s form on the road as the Reds head to the north east for Tuesday’s cup match at Sunderland. Moyes’ side is unbeaten in the last seven games away from home, and have won the last three.
Indeed, United also emerged victorious from the Premier League clash at the Stadium of Light in October, with teenager Adnan Januzaj scoring twice on his full début to rescue three points for the Reds. Still, it was another uncertain performance from United, with Craig Gardner’s early goal handing struggling Sunderland a deserved half-time lead until Januzaj’s double.
That victory had come after defeats to Manchester City and West Bromwich Albion in late September, leaving United to muster similar resolve for Tuesday’s first leg. The team has been here far too many times this season.
Still, facing the worst team in the Premier League, midfielder Darren Fletcher says that the Reds have no excuses for underperformance on Wearside after a “bad result” that “let the manager and the fans down” on Sunday.
“It’s a League Cup semi-final, if you can’t lift yourself for that then it’s no good,” said the 29-year-old midfielder who only recently returned from more than a year on the sidelines with an acute bowel condition.
“We have got a great opportunity, we are away to Sunderland and we’ve got to recover quickly and lift ourselves. That’s a massive game now.”
“The players know that the fans are behind us and put performances in for the them, the manager and the staff. It’s got to happen sooner rather than later and there’s not better occasion than the semi-final on Tuesday.”
Moyes side heads into the game carrying injuries, although the Scot may well field a stronger team that the one which faced Swansea in Manchester. However, Rio Ferdinand is likely to miss the game after limping off against the Welsh side, while Phil Jones, Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney are all unlikely to return before the weekend’s Old Trafford rematch with the Swans.
It is a glut of absences that have patently disrupted United this season, although Moyes has failed to help his own cause by rushing both van Persie and Rooney back from injuries. On each occasion the player suffered fresh injury to stoke further controversy surrounding the Scot’s training methods.
Moyes blames a crowded fixture list for a physio room that now extends to eight players amid 63 separate injuries since the 50-year-old replaced Sir Alex Ferguson.
“Injuries are part of football and there’s very little we can do about most of them. I think they’re down to the large number of games we play as well,” said the United manager.
“Robin’s been out with a sore groin; he played really well against Arsenal and scored the winner. We gave him a week’s holiday to recover – he didn’t go away with Holland – he came back and hasn’t really been right since. He played one game against Newcastle and, the next game, he pulled his thigh taking a corner.
“Wayne’s struggling now. He’s had it for three or four weeks and played through. We left him out for a game or two to try to recover it, but he’s now beginning to feel it a bit more and we have to be careful not to turn it into something worse. A week off might be enough or he might need a bit more than that – I think it’s the sort of thing that a couple of weeks might fix.”
Injuries and rotation mean that Moyes will almost certainly freshen his side up for Tuesday’s match, with captain Nemanja Vidić, Michael Carrick, Patrice Evra, David de Gea, and Adnan Januzaj set to start in a match Moyes has prioritised. Indeed, the manager is unlikely to dip into United’s reserve side again this season, having only blooded Januzaj from last season’s Under-21 Premier League champions.
Meanwhile, Sunderland continue to struggle under manager Gus Poyet’s stewardship this season. The Mackems lie bottom of the Premier League table with just 14 points from 20 games and may need a further 26 from 16 to survive.
It leaves the Capital One Cup run as a welcome distraction, both for manager and players. And akin to many of United’s opponents this season Sunderland, Poyet’s side is set to attack the Reds, believing Moyes side to be vulnerable.
“We are going out to win it and depending on how you play on the day, the decisions you take, the accidents players make, the idea remains the same, to go into every game to win it,” said Poyet, who was controversially sacked as manager of Brighton in the summer.
“This is the nicest part of the season because the rest has been a nightmare in the league, so let’s try and enjoy it and achieve something. I am looking forward to seeing my team playing and doing their best.
“The closer we get to the match will mean the players will feel the atmosphere more and it will be great for them, but I will remind them that on the day anyone can beat anyone.”
However, with Sunderland short of cover in defence United might also be best served by a policy of attack. Valentin Roberge, John O’Shea, Carlos Cuellar and Modibo Diakite are out injured, with South Korea midfielder Ki Sung-yeung playing at centre-half in Sunday’s FA Cup victory against Carlisle.
Still, history is against the home side, with Sunderland having gone 20 games without a win against United stretching back to a League Cup victory in 2000. Mind you, Swansea had never previously won at Old Trafford, while Everton and Newcastle United have each broken decades-long losing streaks at United’s home this season. It is a series of shattered records in which Moyes can hold no pride.
Yet, United is yet to concede a goal in this season’s Capital One Cup, beating Liverpool, Norwich City and Stoke City along the way. It is a positive omen in a season of fewer ups than downs.
Sunderland v Manchester United, Capital One Cup, Stadium of Light, 7.45pm, 7 January 2014
Sunderland (4-1-4-1): Mannone; Celustka, O’Shea, Brown, Dossena; Cattermole; Giaccherini, Gardner, Larsson, Johnson; Altidore. Subs from: Ki, Colback, Fletcher, Pickford, Bardsley, Alonso, Roberge, Borini, Ba, Karlsson, Mavrias
United (4-4-2): De Gea; Smalling, Evans, Vidić, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Cleverley, Januzaj; Hernández, Welbeck. Subs from: Lindegaard, Buttner, Zaha, Fletcher, Anderson, Giggs, Kagawa
Sunderland 39 Draw 36 United 61
Referee: Andre Marriner
Assistant Referees: Sian Massey and Peter Bankes
Fourth Official: Craig Pawson