So this was it. Three losses to start the New Year for David Moyes and his headline-grabbing Manchester United. Sunderland look to be the easiest of meat statistically; they are the bottom-most Premier League club, and hadn’t beaten United for years. But then they also had an enviable cup record this season (5 wins so far stretching into 6 last night). Stadium of Light brings not too many fond memories for Alex Ferguson, who was spotted sharing a seat with Bobby Charlton and Bryan Robson in the Director’s box. After all it was in this very ground that he faced the embarrassment of witnessing Manchester City’s epic title win of 2012.
It is still halftime in the tie, and a lot to play for at Old Trafford for both teams in a fortnight’s time. Gus Poyet was the happier of the two managers, although he was the one doing all the shouting and screaming and gesturing and jibing. David Moyes can’t be blamed much; it is his personnel that let him down far too often. And the fact that all the goals were from set-pieces proves how poor a game of football it was in the cold and windy Wearside. Ryan Giggs was one of the better players on the night but ended up scoring an unlikely own goal. Likewise Nemanja Vidic didn’t do much wrong and scored too, while the same goes for penalty-taker Fabio Borini. Seb Larrson normally steps up for spot kicks at Sunderland, but the Liverpool loanee did no harm to his growing reputation and also gave plenty reasons for Liverpool fans to be happy (how they love their fiercest rivals lose).
The game started in the now-usual cagey manner; not many chances from open play in a game dominated by mistakes. Tom Cleverley deserves special mention here. He was anonymous all night, frustrated by the hounding Lee Cattermole and Ki Sung Yeung. But he was involved in the two telling, game-changing moments. He provided the cross for Vidic’s equalizer, a perfectly dipping corner to the far post. And then when Adam Johnson wriggled free from his watch, he tried hard to stop his fellow countryman but ended up fouling him inside the box. Cleverley looked out of sorts; it was typical of his career so far. Abject and pathetic would be understatements.
Manchester United have long desired a midfielder who can dictate play, tackle well, has that eye for a pass and full of running. Michael Carrick is one-dimensional at best, and Cleverley has a lot to learn. But they can surely do with someone like Ki. He won the League Cup last year with Swansea, and is well on his way to Wembley again. He provided the craft alongside the workmanlike Cattermole. He sprayed passes all over, tackled far better than everybody else and was all over Giggs, Carrick and Cleverley. United would do well with him; he’s relatively cheap, and has that Asian brand image that they so crave.
Adnan Januzaj is exciting, young, and brave. But the only downside is his immaturity. He tends to run into a blind alley more often and lacks the intelligence of a top, top player. But he is immensely promising and is one to watch out for in the next decade or so. The precious little good that United produced last night came from Januzaj; he was the only one popping up with shots after United fell behind in the second half. But he needs far better players around him to prosper. And the less said about a certain Antonio Valencia, the better. Only a few people know why on earth he inherited the famous number 7 of United. One of the most limited players to wear the hallowed red shirt, Moyes would be better off offloading the Ecuadorian in the summer.
To the managers now, and Gus Poyet seems to love playing the cup games more than the league ones. He sent his side with a specific game plan, and had his midfield perfectly balanced to thwart and frustrate United. He picked the rough Cattermole to sweep the dust, had the flamboyant Ki running the show and chose the pacey and nippy Giaccherini doing the running. The old warhorses in John O’Shea and Wes Brown have had fond memories of playing their prime under Ferguson. How blessed they would’ve felt yesterday for not being part of Moyes’ ill-fated reign. David Moyes failed to motivate his side after two consecutive losses; it seems that such blips have become the norm at a club where losing was once regarded as a cardinal sin. His tactics were blunt as ever, plus the absence of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie didn’t help either. His team is hanging by a thread in the Premier League top four race, is out of the FA Cup and is on the verge of a League Cup disaster. The January transfer window has shown him some light, and it depends entirely on him how he saves the wreckage.
Sunderland had everything to cheer about last night. They played like a proper team, and that too on the face of adversity. They have a manager who knows what it is like to struggle. But we have seen cup winners getting relegated in recent seasons (read Wigan and Birmingham City), and survival should be a priority. But they will enjoy their moment in the sun, and deservedly so. As for Manchester United, they just need to pick up a win in 2014. Time is running out quickly for Moyes and co, the expressions of the United legends at full time showed that even they could get desperate.