Most neutral fans of English Football must have a smile on their face tonight for the Black Cats after Sunderland defeated Manchester United on penalty kicks to reach the Capital One Cup final. Passionate, long-suffering Black Cats fans from the Northeast of England will see their side return to a Wembley cup final for the first time since 1992. Sunderland will be heavy underdogs against Manchester City but the last major trophy the club won was in 1973 when they were even bigger underdogs against Leeds United, one of the giants of that era both domestically and in Europe.
The team spirit that Gus Poyet has built in this side in a relatively short period of time cannot be understated. I have noted in league matches the character and fighting mentality in the side. The Black Cats have twice erased two goal deficits to scratch out a difficult point in the last three weeks, while continuing to progress in the League Cup.
The signs are there for Sunderland to escape what looked like a helpless proposition in the league just six weeks ago while giving their fans the occasion of a Wembley final.
Here are six reasons why Sunderland were able to defeat Manchester United tonight in their historic victory at Old Trafford:
1. Adam Johnson. His work rate today was the best I have seen from the player in his career – full stop. It was better than anytime at Middlesbrough, Manchester City or his first two seasons at Sunderland. He tracked back in defense, won balls in midfield and chased down every opportunity to get his team into the final. As a lifelong Sunderland fan, this must be a special time for Johnson.
2. Craig Gardner. The midfielder continued the impact he’s made as a second-half sub in the center of midfield, controlling the tempo and winning the ball back quickly when the Black Cats are chasing a game. He had a similarly effective shift in the December 28 come from behind draw at Cardiff City.
3. Fabio Borini. The striker on loan from Liverpool must be highlight for his link-up play, which is getting better while his runs are becoming more incisive and effective in stretching the opposition defense.
4. Jozy Altidore. The US striker’s hold up play and decision making has improved dramatically since the early part of the season. USMNT fans may bemoan his lack of goal scoring but his overall game has improved.
5. Former United defenders. The leadership of John O’Shea and Wes Brown is critical. When they are on the pitch together, they give Sunderland a mental toughness that was lacking in the side previously.
6. Positivity. Gus Poyet’s positive demeanor has rubbed off on the team. Question marks existed about the manager and the manner he was sacked from Brighton. But at a desperate time for the club, club owner Ellis Short appears to have made the right appointment of a manager after two consecutive poor appointments (Martin O’Neill and Paulo Di Canio).
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