Two moments of magic inside two second-half minutes helped Manchester City avoid a second successive Wembley meltdown on Sunday as they landed the season’s first silverware with a 3-1 victory over Sunderland in the League Cup final.
Memories of last season’s FA Cup final defeat by relegation-bound Wigan Athletic were resurfacing as Manuel Pellegrini’s side trailed to Fabio Borini’s clinical 10th-minute strike.
However, this time City’s slickers showed their pedigree with Yaya Toure’s spectacular curling shot and Samir Nasri’s pile driver turning the final on its head.
Relegation-threatened Sunderland continued to dream of a first piece of silverware since their epic 1972-1973 FA Cup final defeat of Leeds United with an impressive response, before Jesus Navas finished them off in the 90th minute.
It was City’s first League Cup title since 1975-1976 and keeps alive their hopes of an unprecedented domestic treble in Pellegrini’s first season — but it was never straightforward.
“Maybe what happened last year at Wembley was in their minds in the first half, but the important thing was to calm the players and let them trust in what they can do,” Chilean Pellegrini, who picked up his first major trophy as a European coach after a lengthy, but fruitless spell in Spain, told reporters.
With City in the last eight of the FA Cup and six points off the top of the Premier league with two games in hand, Pellegrini said capturing the League Cup could prove pivotal.
“This gives us a lot of confidence to go forward,” he said. “If you have a chance to win a title and don’t, it affects you. We are the only club to have the chance to win all the trophies and for a big club one trophy is never enough.”
Sunderland manager Gus Poyet shrugged off the defeat, saying there was little his team could have done.
“I’m sad, I hate it, but I’m proud of them,” the Uruguayan said. “We were more than decent for 45 minutes — then bang, bang. From the football side we couldn’t do better, but in the end the quality decided the game.”
Sunderland spent the opening minutes deep inside their own half as City zipped the ball around on the lush Wembley turf, but, after knocking out Chelsea and Manchester United to reach the showpiece, they soon showed some attacking intent.
City were jittery at the back and after Sunderland had a goal rightly flagged offside, they fell behind after an uncharacteristic mistake by skipper Vincent Kompany.
He was caught in two minds as Borini closed him down and instead of booting the ball clear he was dispossessed. Borini raced into the penalty area to thump a shot with the outside of his right boot past Costel Pantilimon.
City dominated possession for the rest of the half without ever carving open a Sunderland rearguard well-marshaled by former Manchester United stalwarts Wes Brown and John O’Shea.
Sunderland goalkeeper Vito Mannone was never seriously tested and it was Sunderland who could have doubled their lead when Borini ran through on goal from a suspiciously offside position.
This time Kompany rescued his side with a timely intervention just as the Italian cocked his leg to shoot.
A City onslaught was expected at the start of the second half, but again it was Poyet’s Sunderland who impressed.
Ki Sung-yueng, part of the Swansea City side that lifted the trophy last season, let fly from long range, forcing Pantilimon to tip his dipping strike over the crossbar.
Then the wheels fell off the Black Cats’ bandwagon.
One nonchalant swing of Toure’s right leg sent a curling long-range shot beyond the fingertips of Mannone after 55 minutes and two minutes later Nasri met Aleksandar Kolarov’s half-cleared cross with an unstoppable shot.
It was cruel on Sunderland, but they refused to capitulate and once their heads had cleared from the shock of two lightning bolts they began to pose some serious questions of a City defense that still looked vulnerable.
With Sunderland throwing men forward substitute Steven Fletcher hit a shot straight at Pantilimon and they battled gamely until the end to no avail.
Substitute Navas made absolutely sure there was no way back for Sunderland with a clinical third on the stroke of fulltime.