Sunderland have a historic opportunity on Wednesday night.
Not since 1992 have they visited Wembley in a major Cup final and, with Manchester United reeling, Gus Poyet’s side find themselves with a bit of momentum heading to Old Trafford. However, there are still major issues to solve if Sunderland are to complete one of the most impressive Cup journeys of recent times.
GO FOR IT
In some ways, 2-1 is a difficult scoreline for Poyet to play with. The advantage is useful, of course, but with no bonus for scoring away from home there is an argument for trying to keep things as tight as possible – at least initially – and then trying to counter-attack the Red Devils as the contest goes on.
It would be the wrong approach. Sunderland had their biggest joy in the first leg when they attacked Manchester United, who will be without Nemanja Vidic for a game they must win. They must be bold, they must not attempt to protect their advantage and they must give their opponents something to think about.
Journal columnist Don Hutchison suggests today a 4-4-2 formation – which would be something of an anathema to Poyet – might be the key to opening up Manchester United. His thinking is Sunderland will not be overrun in midfield by David Moyes’ system and they have the players to match Manchester United (who might be missing Wayne Rooney again).
In fact, given the way Ki has been playing recently it might not be exaggerating to say Sunderland have potentially the game’s most influential midfielder in their engine room. Going with two up front or even deploying Emanuele Giaccherini just behind a lone striker would be a bold statement of intent.
TIME TO BRING JACK BACK?
Lee Cattermole’s performance on Saturday gives Poyet a headache. Sunderland’s skipper is normally exactly the kind of character you would pin your hopes on in a game like this, but his display against Southampton was a surprising lurch back to the days when his concentration went AWOL. If he has another first half like that on Wednesday Sunderland might find themselves on the back foot and in real trouble.
In fact, the whole midfield seemed to be set up wrong against Southampton. Cattermole’s role pushed Ki out of the central slot which he has dictated from recently and it was only when Jack Colback came on Sunderland seemed to wrestle control of the game back.
Can Poyet really afford to dump his most high-profile midfielder for a game like this, though? It is a major, major dilemma for the Uruguyan. Colback’s neat and tidy efficiency might be more suited to an evening when holding their collective nerve might be the key to progress.
PLAY ON MAN UNITED’S NERVES
Sunderland should not make the mistake of underestimating Manchester United, despite their dramatic slump in form. They still possess players capable of harming the Black Cats and if Wayne Rooney, who has returned from Egypt and started running again, plays then they can still field one of the most dangerous players in the entire Premier League.
However, it would be remiss of Poyet to ignore the fact Red Devil nerves are frayed. Sunday’s defeat at Chelsea illustrated a lack of confidence and composure and, with the Premier League title off the agenda, the Capital One Cup suddenly assumes huge importance for Moyes. It would be exaggerating to say he cannot afford to lose – Manchester United’s board will not pull the trigger if they fail to advance – but it would be another body blow for the new regime.
Have Manchester United the character to pull this one out of the bag? Nothing we have seen this season would suggest they have, and if Sunderland can make a promising start on Wednesday it might completely change both the atmopshere and context of the evening.
With fear in the home side’s eyes, forcing the issue is a must.
BACK GUS POYET’S INSTINCTS
Pass, pass and pass. Under Poyet the instructions are clear - possession is nine tenths of the law but it has to be used effectively and the ball needs to be moved quickly.
It is easier to do that at the Stadium of Light than it is at Old Trafford, where Sunderland have not won since 1968.
Yet whatever happens on Wednesday they must stay true to Poyet’s plan and make sure they do not abandon the passing game – however Manchester United start the game.
To emphasise the point, Sunderland’s success on Saturday came only when they got Ki involved in the game. He is critical to everything the Black Cats are doing well at the moment and making sure he is at the centre of Sunderland’s plans is Poyet’s priority.
EMPOWER THE WIDE MEN
Adam Johnson has been a revelation recently and Poyet must go with him at Old Trafford. It was clear from his performance the last time he can cause problems for the Red Devils. Giaccherini – either as a support striker or one of the flanks – could put further pressure on a brittle Manchester United back four.
Make no mistake: width can be Sunderland’s friend on Wednesday.
THE TWELFTH MAN
It is rare for Sunderland to feel so united. The club and its support have not always been on the same page recently but, after a summer where Paolo Di Canio caused friction, there is a unity about the Black Cats which is really pleasing.
The ticket pricing for this run has been praised and Sunderland have funded the travel of their sizeable travelling support and 9,000 will cheer them on at Old Trafford.
Poyet has impressed and charmed the Black Cats support and there is a common sense of purpose about the club as they head into this crunch fixture.
Sunderland have Wearside on their side.