When Sunderland paid Manchester City £10m for Adam Johnson, it was for nights like tonight.
The Easington-born winger was bought to give the Black Cats an extra dimension, and make the difference in big games. This evening’s is certainly that.
All the cameras will be trained on Manchester United manager David Moyes in his last realistic shot at silverware this season, but there is plenty at stake for Sunderland too. It is 22 years since they last reached a major cup final.
As their coach put it, “You don’t get to a semi-final every year – sometimes not even in 10 years.”
In Johnson, though, the Black Cats have a player who can put that statistic to bed. Jeered onto the field by chants of “City reject” from the away end, it was his surging run which won the deciding penalty in the first leg of the semi-final tie with Manchester United, and his captain John O’Shea believes he can finish the job at Old Trafford tonight.
Johnson is the Premier League’s form player of 2014.
The year is only three weeks old but already Sunderland’s winger has scored five goals and contributed to four more. The Red Devils have only scored six in five matches in that time, four of them lost. No wonder Johnson’s is one of the names inked onto Gustavo Poyet’s team-sheet and O’Shea is calling on his team-mates to give him the ball at every possible opportunity. Even if Manchester United’s very vulnerable-looking defence is able to keep Johnson at arm’s length, O’Shea believes he can still be a match-winner.
“All our attacking players have to step up to the plate during the season and Adam’s in a hot vein of form at the minute,” says the former Manchester United defender.
“We’ll be getting the ball to him as much as we can but it’s up to other players to use that knowledge, and Adam himself – if he’s going to have two or three players around him, he’s got to realise other lads will be free and pass it to them. We can use that to our advantage too.
“We’re going into a massive occasion and one we can look forward to after coming back from a very poor performance on Saturday (at home to Southampton) to a very strong one in the second half.”
It seems incredible to think that in the first leg, just a fortnight ago, Johnson could not make Poyet’s starting XI. Until recently his entire Sunderland career had been spent treading water as one of English football’s great unfulfilled talents. He will start at Old Trafford.
“Johnno is at a great moment in time and a great moment of form,” says Poyet. “He picks himself.”
With the pacey Johnson in such fine form and a 2-1 aggregate lead to defend (away goals do not count double after normal time in the League Cup), Sunderland can afford to sit deep and hit their hosts on the counter-attack. But O’Shea, who has played as much two-legged football as anyone in the squad, does not want them to fall into that trap.
“United know what they have to do – they’re behind,” he warns. “We know a draw’s enough but you can never go into a game thinking like that. We just have to play exactly as we did in the first leg.
“For some strange reason we’re playing better away from home.”
The Red Devils are finding few comforts at home. Unless or until they can take the lead on the night, Old Trafford will be a nervy place. Their supporters have got used to laps of honour and trophy presentation, not to sequences of results like this year’s. Every misplaced pass, every shot off target, every missed tackle will be met with groans. Just because defeat is unlikely to result in Moyes getting the sack does not mean he is not under pressure. Having played in front of them for 12 trophy-laden years, O’Shea knows the pysche of the Old Trafford fans.
“That’s where you wait and see,” he says. “They had a tough game away to Chelsea (a bruising 3-1 defeat) and we were watching that. We’ll dust ourselves down and the manager will have us well prepared. We’ve got to go there and score a goal and if we do that it will make it much more difficult for United. But we’re under no illusions. They’ve still got some very good players.” If the red-shirted players have much to fear, Sunderland have nothing to lose. When the draw was made few expected the bottom team in the league to give the reigning champions too much of a scare. The over-riding priority remains Premier League survival. The Black Cats can play with freedom.
Morale is as high as it should be after one defeat in ten games. Even a performance as dreadful as the first half-hour against Southampton had a happy ending, storming back to claim what felt like a 2-2 win. “A semi-final is easy, I hope,” says Poyet of the psychology of the semi-final.
“The one that will be different is the Stoke game (Sunderland’s next in the Premier League). This game will be easy to motivate the players.
“What we did against Southampton at first didn’t work and I am the first one to blame for that. Everything went against us – the ball, the weather, you name it, everything. Fabio (Borini) scored at the right time to change the game and allow me to change things at half-time, and when they came on Jack (Colback) and Craig (Gardner) were incredible. You need your subs to change the game and those two did it.”
And if you think tonight does not matter to Sunderland, listen to what their former Premier League, European, FA and League Cup-winning captain has to say.
“It would be an amazing thing to get to a final with Sunderland,” he comments.
“It would match a lot of things I’ve done in my career, it would be incredible.”