Manchester United’s desperate season met with fresh degradation on Wednesday as they sensationally lost on penalties to Sunderland in the League Cup semi-finals at Old Trafford.
Trailing 2-1 from the first leg, United leveled the tie through Jonny Evans’ 37th-minute header, only for Phil Bardsley to net a dramatic equalizer late in extra-time with a low shot that squirmed past David de Gea.
Improbably, United promptly went straight up to the other end and equalized through Javier Hernandez for a 3-3 aggregate scoreline that sent the tie to penalties, but it was to prove a false dawn.
An appalling shootout saw only three of the 10 players score, but United fullback Rafael da Silva proved the fall guy, with Vito Mannone saving his spot-kick to give Sunderland a 2-1 victory.
Having already seen his side beaten by Swansea City in the FA Cup and relegated to 14 points below leaders Arsenal in the Premier League this month, it was another night of misery for United’s beleaguered manager David Moyes.
“We did not play well enough,” Moyes said. “We had the chances to put it to bed, but didn’t. Sunderland played well and they deserve credit, but overall we looked like we would get there until the last minute. I was disappointed, but we did not play well enough in the end. That’s football. We’ll get on with it, pick ourselves up and go again.”
Sunderland, second from bottom of the Premier League, can now look forward to a clash with Manchester City in the final on March 2, in what will be their first major final since 1992.
“The feelings are for the fans,” Sunderland manager Gus Poyet said. “It’s been a difficult season, nothing to enjoy, but they deserve this. The lads were immense. In the cups you never know what will happen. I will enjoy being underdogs [at Wembley].”
United’s fans arrived at Old Trafford to reports that their side have made a club-record bid for Chelsea midfielder Juan Mata, while the continued absence of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie due to injury underlined the need for reinforcements.
There was an early chance for Hernandez, whose downward header from Adnan Januzaj’s free-kick was parried by visiting goalkeeper Mannone, but the hosts initially struggled to make inroads.
Nine thousand Sunderland fans traveled from the northeast and the hordes of away supporters almost had a memorable goal to cheer when Fabio Borini chested down a raking pass from Adam Johnson and drilled a half-volley centimeters over the bar from long range.
Moyes reacted by bringing Shinji Kagawa into the center and moments later the Japan midfielder created the chance that led to the opening goal.
His cross was volleyed against the post by Darren Fletcher, with Mannone blocking Hernandez’s follow-up, and from the ensuing corner Januzaj’s cross was flicked goalward by Danny Welbeck and headed in by Evans.
As Sunderland grew bolder in the second half, Moyes introduced Antonio Valencia in place of Kagawa and the Ecuadoran quickly created a chance for Januzaj, only for the teenager to slice wide.
It was Sunderland who continued to force the issue, though. Only a flying block from Alexander Buttner thwarted Johnson, while Marcos Alonso almost found the net with an audacious volley that zipped just past the post.
Meanwhile, United’s Chris Smalling was fortunate to avoid punishment when he dragged Sunderland striker Steven Fletcher down after misjudging a bouncing ball.