With their Premier League title defense in tatters, Manchester United approach the second leg of their League Cup semi-final against Sunderland tomorrow conscious that it could define their domestic season.
Sunday’s 3-1 loss at Chelsea left David Moyes’ side 14 points off the pace in the league and, having been knocked out of the FA Cup by Swansea City, United need success in the League Cup like never before.
It is a competition that United occasionally treated with disdain under Moyes’ predecessor, Alex Ferguson, but the new manager knows that he cannot afford to pick and choose when the club’s fans are in the doldrums.
To book a likely final date with Manchester City, who lead 6-0 at the halfway stage of their last-four tie against West Ham United, Moyes’ men must overturn a 2-1 deficit from the first leg.
Including that result at the Stadium of Light on Jan. 7, United have lost four of five games this year and midfielder Michael Carrick said the players are desperate to get back to winning.
“We want to play again as quickly as possible,” he said. “Wednesday is another big game. It is a huge game for us. It is an opportunity to get to a final. You can’t take that lightly. We will get over this [losing to Chelsea], dust ourselves down and be ready again for Wednesday.”
Urging the club’s supporters not to desert the team, the England midfielder added: “The fans have been unbelievable, over the last month or so especially. Times have been difficult. Performances have not been that bad actually, but results have been pretty awful for us to take. We are giving everything at the minute. It is just not going our way.”
Moyes will be obliged to make changes to his back four for the visit of Gus Poyet’s side, with Nemanja Vidic suspended after being sent off at Chelsea and Patrice Evra a doubt after hobbling off early in the second half.
The game will also come too soon for strikers Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, who were expected back in training this week after spells on the sidelines.
Sunderland striker Steven Fletcher is a doubt for the trip to Old Trafford as he nurses an Achilles injury.
The 26-year-old Scot played for 18 minutes in Sunderland’s 2-2 draw at home to Southampton on Saturday, but Poyet is unwilling to take risks with last season’s top scorer.
“Sometimes you have to think of the player and I did not want to be responsible for him getting injured by starting him in the game,” the Sunderland manager told local newspaper the Sunderland Echo. “But he came through it OK and we just have to assess how it will be in the next few days.”
Although they remain in the Premier League relegation zone, Sunderland have markedly improved under Poyet’s stewardship, losing only one of their past 10 games in all competitions.
“We are not afraid of anything,” goalkeeper Vito Mannone said. “It’s a new game again, but the mentality is 0-0 and we need to go to Old Trafford and make it to Wembley [Stadium]. You don’t need any pressure to go to Old Trafford. You just need to believe you can make it. Like that, we will perform even better.”
A draw will be enough for Sunderland to qualify for their first major final since 1992, but they have avoided defeat only twice on their past 12 visits to Old Trafford.