It is not as if David Moyes lacks for practice this season, but the Scot does an increasingly impressive line in dead pan comedy. At least that is one interpretation of the Moyes’ reaction to United’s latest – the ninth – defeat of a frankly disastrous season. “We were unlucky,” said Moyes in the aftermath. “I thought we played quite well at times.” It was a line that the Scot took into the dressing room according to at least one post-match report; analysis that is unlikely to have impressed seasoned campaigners who know far better. The Reds were neither unlucky, nor did they play well in the capital.
The latest knock to United’s hopes, and Moyes’ credibility, was comprehensive defeat at Stamford Bridge, no matter how generous the analysis of United’s fleeting toehold in the game. The Reds’ positive start in west London would yield few chances, let alone goals; and with United’s defence erring on the side of embarrassing calamity at the other end there was little surprise at the ease of Chelsea’s eventual victory. That José Mourinho’s side barely broke sweat must be a concern not only in United’s dressing room, but the boardroom. For while Moyes’ players are not performing, they are not performing for him.
Indeed, prior to United’s Capital One Cup first leg encounter with Sunderland a fortnight ago veteran Scot Darren Fletcher had proclaimed there “no point” in turning up if Moyes’ players could not motivate themselves for the game. It turned out to be a prescient comment, with United largely run ragged by one of the Premier League’s worst sides.
So to Wednesday at Old Trafford, with Moyes afforded the opportunity for at least a modicum of satisfaction this month. Should United beat Sunderland, to join Manchester City in the Capital One Cup final at Wembley in March, Moyes will be within reach of his first trophy as a manager. Few may back United to beat City, but a final, is a final, after all.
Yet, the desire to beat Sunderland must be qualified and with it comes a measure of United’s fall from grace this season. That the Premier League champions should start a cup semi-final encounter against perennial relegation fodder genuinely unsure of the result is a sign of changing times indeed.
Victory by a single goal should be enough for Moyes’ outfit, but four Premier League defeats on home turf this season point to a potentially difficult night ahead all the same. In fact Moyes’ side has lost four of the past seven home matches, while Gus Poyet’s outfit has lost just one in 10.
Still, there is a cup final at stake. Another trip to Wembley, another opportunity to deny City further trophies in that once traditionally barren cupboard. Confidence may be lacking, both on the pitch and the terraces, but there is an opportunity to put one over the old enemy nonetheless. One for the fans, as Moyes might put it.
“We’re going to go out and do everything we can to get through,” the manager told MUTV in the aftermath of defeat at Stamford Bridge. “I want to give the supporters something to cheer about. There’s not been an awful lot and I’m fully aware of that.”
If victory is to come ‘for the fans’ then it will do so without either Wayne Rooney or Robin van Persie. One, or perhaps both of the strike pair, could make United’s Premier League encounter with Cardiff City at Old Trafford next Tuesday, but neither is ready for Sunderland. Indeed, Moyes will be short in multiple areas, with Nemanja Vidić starting the first of a three match suspension following his dismissal at Stamford Bridge. Nani is definitely out, while Marouanne Fellaini is not yet ready for competitive football, and Patrice Evra picked up a knock at Stamford Bridge.
Still, there should be no doubt in the dressing room of the fixture’s importance, with the Premier League title now way beyond United’s reach and few bold enough to predict victory in Europe this season. With Moyes credibility in question, silverware is the Scot’s only legitimate response to critics keen to point the finger at the manager’s failings.
“It was always massively important to us – we want to win every competition. Now we have to go out and produce the goods. We have to get to that final,” said youngster Phil Jones, who partnered Michael Carrick in midfield at Chelsea
“The fans have been terrific and they were great again on Sunday. They’ve not had the easiest of times this season but they’ve stuck by us and that’s important. We all need to stick together – fans, players, staff – and we’ll come out stronger for that.”
It is a positive spin on a tough season, although there are few guarantees that United will improve as the campaign draws on. There has been little sign of it to date.
Meanwhile, the visitors have received a boost from Poyet’s appointment. The trauma of Paolo di Canio’s short reign now forgotten, Sunderland can legitimately hope for Premier League survival this season having briefly moved outside the bottom three at the weekend. There were more than a few occasions through the autumn that relegation looked certain.
And the more positive outlook received a double boost this week, with Sunderland bringing in defender Santiago Vergini and goalkeeper Oscar Ustari on loan. Neither is likely to start at Old Trafford, while striker Steven Fletcher is an injury concern. Goalkeeper Keiren Westwood and defender Carlos Cuellar remain on the sidelines.
“You don’t get to a semi-final every year – sometimes not even in 10 years,” said Poyet ahead of Wednesday’s game.
“It’s a great opportunity to put ourselves in a final but we’ve only done part of the job. We must go there and try to make sure we finish the job and put ourselves in the final. We’re going to play the game as normal. It’s a game we need to manage properly. We need a complete game – we must defend well, be strong and be good on the ball. We must attack to create chances and score goals. If we score then it will be more difficult for Manchester United.”
The Mackems have won just two of the past 25 meetings with United in all competitions, with both victories coming in the League Cup. Few will back the visitors to repeat the 2-1 win a fortnight ago. Yet, while that victory may have come with a touch of fortune, it was still hard earned. This is a lesson that United’s under-performing stars will do well to heed, lest their manager take more heat in a most difficult campaign.
Manchester United v Sunderland, Capital One Cup, 7.45pm, 22 January 2014
United (4-5-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Buttner; Valencia, Carrick, Fletcher, Young; Januzaj; Welbeck. Subs from: Lindegaard, Smalling, Kagawa, Zaha, Giggs, Hernández, Cleverley, Fabio
Sunderland (4-5-1): Mannone; Bardsley, O’Shea, Brown, Alonso; Larsson, Colback, Cattermole, Ki, Johnson; Borini. Subs from: Gardner, Fletcher, Celustka, Pickford, Giaccherini, Roberge, Altidore, Vergini, Ustari
United 56 Draw 28 Sunderland 37
Referee: Lee Mason
Assistant Referees: Jake Collin and Simon Long
Fourth Official: Michael Dean