After the semi-final comes... “more than a final”.
It is a favourite cliche of footballers and managers at the wrong end of the table that the next (league) game is “a cup final”. Sunderland’s Italian goalkeeper Vito Mannone believes today’s trip to Fulham is whatever is the next level up from that.
“Fulham is definitely more important (than Tuesday’s game against Manchester United) now,” he says. “I say that now because it is more than a final. We have to compete and make sure we take three points. We need to open the challenge of survival after dropping three points against Villa.”
Pleasing though it was to see a North East team on the brink of Wembley – taking a 2-1 first-leg advantage to a ground which is traditionally a stronghold, but not this season – it was tinged with frustration.
How on earth is a team capable of beating both Manchester clubs, Chelsea, Everton and Southampton, and losing to Fulham, Crystal Palace, West Bromwich Albion, Hull City and Aston Villa?
It is not just the fans asking that question.
“With the talent we have we can’t show the talent one week and then not the next,” warns Mannone. “We have to show it every week. Every time we step on the pitch we are playing for our lives now. We need to get these three points. We still have 19 (league) games to go and take points. We lost to Fulham the first game (of the season) here, we dominated the game here. That was three points gone. We need to beat the teams around us. We need to stay in touch with the group.”
It is a depressingly familiar story. Fulham were a shambolic excuse for a football team earlier this season, losing seven straight games until Martin Jol was replaced by Rene Meulensteen. Since then they have won three, lost three and drawn one, opening a five-point gap on the bottom-placed team. Sunderland have not cornered the market in inconsistency.
“It is a funny game,” says Mannone, getting all Jimmy Greaves on us. “Somehow we produce great performances against the big clubs. We all talk with each other and we can’t find the reason why we don’t beat teams in around us.
“I’d take every day a win against the big clubs, if we can win our away games too then that is great. We need to focus.
“We have another final against Fulham and that will be a tougher game. We have to play the same standards because the Premier League is so tough.
“We have to approach the game in a same way. I am tired of saying we have the team to compete, good ability and a good squad. You can tell when we play these games, we don’t beat these big clubs with luck. That’s four in a row.
“We need to have the same attitude against the smaller teams. The smaller teams maybe put 10 bodies behind (the ball), and it’s more open against the better teams. We have to survive and give our all again.”
One thing they will not want for is confidence, not after beating the reigning champions.
“We dominated the game,” Mannone stresses. “That is important. We dominated against Man City for one half too.
“I didn’t feel like Man United dominated us so much. We kept the ball really well. We were in control. Even if they scored from a set-piece, a good header, we reacted well.
“It was a massive result. We know we have two games but winning our home game was the important thing. We were told to enjoy it, we had nothing to lose in a semi-final against one of the best teams in the country. It is a dream for everybody and the fans. We didn’t fear anybody and we did very well.
“The semi-final was important and beating Man United was great. It is only half the job done. The big task will be away from home. It will be tougher.”
Tougher still await this afternoon.