Sunderland came close, but Man City prevail to win League Cup

Sunday March 2nd, 2014

Sunderland was very close to a monumental upset of Manchester City to win the League Cup, but fell short in a 3-1 loss at Wembley.
Michael Regan/Getty Images

To Manchester City, the spoils, and a first trophy for Manuel Pellegrini. On the basis of its second half display and, in particular, brilliant goals from Yaya Toure and Samir Nasri, it probably just about deserved it. But to Sunderland, for about 44 minutes of an excellent final, there was the dream of the most unlikely of upsets.

For certain clubs, the ones where the opportunity for success comes only once every couple of decades, for whom Wembley remains a place of aspiration rather than a familiar second home, football is a game of memory. A Sunderland fan comes to Wembley for the first time since 1998, for the first time in a cup final since 1992, and the ghosts are awakened. There, that goalmouth, was where Ian Porterfield lashed in the winner and Jim Montgomery made his brilliant save in 1973; there, that strip in front of the royal box, was where Raich Carter was chaired from the field in 1937; there, that was where David Corner let John Deehan get by him in 1985; and right there, that's where John Byrne missed that chance in 1992.

Manchester City is only just beginning to get used to the trips to Wembley, but for Sunderland it remains a thing of wonder. At least 30,000 supporters traveled down from the northeast. Most of them seemed to congregated in Covent Garden on Saturday night, turning a piazza known for its opera house and its street entertainers into a seething, beery mass of red and white. Pub signs were covered in Sunderland flags, the atmosphere merrily and raucous: these were people celebrating their club and their identity in the capital. A generation had never known anything like it; others know only too well that it may never come again.

Three and a half hours before kick-off, Olympic Way was a mass of red-and-white clad Sunderland fans gleefully and disbelievingly taking pictures of the famous sights, as though unable quite to believe that they were really there. City fans, having been to Wembley six times in the last three years, were a little more blasé. It's not just that Sunderland has nothing like the resources of City, it's the absurdity of this run --from the four goals in 12 minutes to overturn a two-goal deficit against MK Dons, to the late equalizer and extra-time win against Chelsea, to the farcical penalty shootout against Manchester United. Sometimes on a Cup run there is a sense of momentum: this time, Sunderland blundered its way to the final almost despite itself, while knocking out two giants on the way there.

When it took the lead after 10 minutes, it seemed that spirit, that ability to ride its luck and outfight more skilled sides, might again prevail. The goal was a classic example of how Sunderland has played of late, with Lee Cattermole dispossessing Fernandinho and working the ball right for Adam Johnson, who chipped a ball down the line for Fabio Borini. He muscled by Vincent Kompany and finished brilliantly with the outside of his right foot. City was oddly flat, the snap and bite and energy of Sunderland's midfield seeming to overwhelm Yaya Toure and Fernandinho, even as City bossed possession. But with enough time and enough passes, attrition eventually will create opportunities, and after 54 minutes, Toure struck. Sebastian Larsson, having taken a blow in a challenge, hobbled across to cover and his momentary immobility created a couple of yards of space. Given the opportunity 25 yards out, he wafted a leg at the ball and sent it arcing into the top corner.

"We didn't make any mistakes today," said the Sunderland manager Gus Poyet. "Maybe we missed a couple of half chances but we didn't give anything away, Manchester City earned it and that's all we can do. If Yaya is a different class player, unless we shoot him, there is nothing we can do."

Samir Nasri's goal three minutes later was even better as he struck a bouncing ball first-time with the outside of his right foot just inside the post after Aleksandar Kolarov's cross had deflected off John O'Shea. Sunderland, to its great credit, rallied and created a couple of half-chances, none better than in the final minute as Ki headed a free-kick into Steven Fletcher's path. As the ball bounced across the substitute, he neglected to shoot with his weaker right foot, tried to control the ball and bring it back on to his left, and ended up miscontrolling it out for a goal-kick. A few seconds later, Jesus Navas was finishing off a breakaway and the game was done.

So Pellegrini has his first silverware -- the first, he hopes, of many -- and City's fans more memories for a bank that is rapidly filling.

"It gives a lot of confidence to us because when you have a chance to win a title if you don't do it your mind doesn't work in the same way," he said. "We're the only club that has a chance to win all the competitions and if you win the first you have to keep trying to win them all."

Sunderland, meanwhile, can at least console itself with the thought that, unlike in 1985 and 1992, it produced something like its best in the final and its fans can always recall the moment when Borini put it ahead and it seemed the implausible might be about to happen.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.