One further side-benefit of having some of the best footballers in the world, as Manchester City discovered for the first time on Sunday, is that you can go to a cup final and win without ever turning on the A-game. Just get the ball to the superstars among your number and trust them to do the necessary when the moment arrives.
So it was for City at Wembley as they bagged the third trophy of the Abu Dhabi era: not their finest performance but two brilliant goals in the space of 105 seconds from Yaya Touré and Samir Nasri in the second half did the job. In all other areas, Sunderland were competitive, they just fell short in that category of inspirational, game-changing goals.
There were times in the first half, after Fabio Borini’s 10th-minute goal, when one wondered if it might be possible that City would repeat the calamity of last season’s FA Cup final when they neglected to defeat Wigan Athletic. But City are better than that these days. The propensity to self-destruct is slowly being eliminated and although for a while they tried in vain to pass the ball down the middle of a cluttered Sunderland formation, they eventually clicked.
Every great side needs one player to set the standard and Touré’s beautifully flighted shot-cum-lob was the brilliant intervention that Manuel Pellegrini’s team required. This was not Touré’s best game, not by a long shot, and yet with Lee Cattermole snapping around his heels and the impressive Ki Sung-yueng running the show for Sunderland, the City midfielder still found it within himself to make the critical difference.
Then having breached Sunderland once, City did it all over again with Nasri’s outside-of-the-foot volley that reminded Gus Poyet’s team that it really is once in a lifetime that you beat a team of this quality. As the Sunderland manager admitted afterwards, his team had to be perfect to defeat City and they also had to hope that their opponents failed to turn on the magic, as was the case when Sunderland beat them in the Premier League earlier this season.
The stars did not align for Sunderland twice in one season, but they had a bloody good time along the way. Their supporters took over Covent Garden on Saturday night and at Wembley they witnessed a team that for long periods of the game were the better side. They certainly edged the first half and even after the two goals that changed the game, Poyet reorganised his team and they might have come back into it.
Manchester City 3 Sunderland 1 player ratings
Manchester City 3 Sunderland 1 player ratings
1/24 Costel Pantilimon 5/10
Could do little about the opening goal and had few shots to deal with. Not always convincing though, with the odd wayward punch.
2/24 Pablo Zabaleta 5/10
Frustrating first half as chances to get forward were limited but became more involved in the second period and laid on the pass for Toure’s goal.
3/24 Vincent Kompany 7/10
Surprisingly outdone by Borini for the opening goal but more than made up for it, particularly with a last-ditch challenge on Sunderland’s goalscorer.
4/24 Martin Demichelis 5/10
Continues to look a weak link in the Manchester City side, but did enough in this match to keep Sunderland from scoring again. Strong in the air.
5/24 Aleksandar Kolarov 7/10
Delivered the ball for Nasri’s goal and was a constant threat down the left with consistent deliveries. Dreadful clearance late on.
6/24 Fernandinho 7/10
Made vital tackles throughout the match and began to dominate the centre of the park. His challenge on Alonso started move for final goal.
7/24 Yaya Toure 7/10
A jaded performance was sparked into life by a quite brilliant curled strike. Played further forward in later stages and set up Navas’s winner.
8/24 Samir Nasri 8/10
Among City’s best performers, combining with his fellow midfielders and opening up Sunderland’s defence. First-time shot to score was sublime.
9/24 Sergio Aguero 7/10
Proved he was fit and ready for the final with some excellent touches and frightening pace. Showed great control in build-up to second goal.
10/24 David Silva 7/10
Usual brilliant self, with quick tidy passing constantly giving Sunderland something to think about. At times overplayed it and was taken off.
11/24 Edin Dzeko 4/10
Failed to influence the game, with his first touch letting him down. Managed to waste some time when withdrawn for Negredo.
12/24 Best of the bench: Jesus Navas 7/10
Pace was a threat when he came on for Aguero, helping to keep Sunderland pegged back. Scored the final goal with well-placed effort inside near post.
13/24 Vito Mannone 6/10
Could do nothing about the first two goals, which were struck brilliantly. Got a hand on the third but power took it past him. Otherwise good.
14/24 Phil Bardsley 7/10
Strong tackle on Silva early on showed he was up for this one. Crucial interception inside his own six-yard box with Nasri looking to find a team-mate.
15/24 Marcos Alonso 6/10
Was not tight enough to Nasri for the second goal but did well to limit City’s progress down their right in the first half. Tired in the second period
16/24 Wes Brown 6/10
Solid throughout, winning numerous headers when City tried to play the ball long, helping to keep Dzeko quiet. Headed just over from a corner
17/24 John O’Shea 6/10
The veteran defender showed he still has a bit in the tank when he needs it, managing to keep pace with both Aguero and Navas, just, and make crucial tackles.
18/24 Lee Cattermole 7/10
Showed desire to get on the ball whenever he could and leadership in abundance. Good pass selection, although made occasional errors.
19/24 Jack Colback 6/10
Put in strong tackles throughout and showed his ability to deliver a dangerous cross from the left. Did not always get the better of Zabaleta, however.
20/24 Adam Johnson 6/10
Exquisite pass with outside of the boot set up Borini’s goal. However, failed to repeat his recent good form and was withdrawn after an hour.
21/24 Sebastian Larsson 6/10
Played in a central position and was involved in Sunderland’s best moves during the first half. Less influential in the second and replaced after an hour.
22/24 Ki Sung-yueng 8/10
Assured touches in central areas and looked to take his team forward whenever he received the ball. Stung palms of Pantilimon from range.
23/24 Fabio Borini 6/10
Scored with great calmness to put Sunderland in the lead. Should perhaps have doubled advantage when in on goal again. Faded as game went on.
24/24 Best of the bench: Steven Fletcher 4/10
Decent chance inside box but could only shoot straight at Pantilimon. Provided focal point up front but touch let him down badly when in good position.
Try as he might, the Sunderland manager could not stop himself reflecting on the chances that got away. Having executed his first goal brilliantly, Borini went clear again in the first half but did not have the pace to get away from Vincent Kompany or the foresight to try to cut across the City defender’s line and make the saving tackle more difficult.
Then, in the final moments of the game, Ki won a header in the area and the ball fell to substitute Steven Fletcher at the far post. Given the chance to score, he failed to make a clean connection – this from a player whose technical quality is not in doubt. Fletcher made a positive impact from the moment he replaced Seb Larsson on the hour and the feeling was that Sunderland would get a chance. Within a minute of Fletcher missing, City scored their third.
That was a rampaging counter-attack led by Touré, who was at the head of a posse of City players breaking out of defence once Fernandinho had won the ball. Touré delayed his pass right to substitute Jesus Navas until the optimum moment and the winger did the rest.
For Pellegrini, it was the first major trophy of his European management career, unless one counts the Intertoto Cup with Villarreal in 2004. At the club that wants it all, the League Cup is no more than an hors d’oeuvre but it adds some security. Pellegrini has taken his team the distance in a cup competition, a milestone even considering the players he has at his disposal.
There is no question that the fluency of attack that City have achieved at times this season is not currently there. Despite playing a part in the second City goal, Sergio Aguero still looks off the pace. Sunderland used the width of the Wembley pitch better in the first half, when City’s best players, David Silva included, seemed intent on running the ball through the middle.
The Touré goal, after an exchange with Pablo Zabaleta, was impossible to stop. So too, Nasri’s strike when Aleksandar Kolarov’s cross from the left was met first time. In response to taking the lead, Pellegrini substituted Aguero before the hour, which suggests he too does not believe the player is quite at his best.
Sunderland were given the lead when Kompany’s mistake let in Borini to score from the right with the outside of his foot on a tight angle. It will be interesting to see how they respond to defeat, a question that Poyet himself was posing within an hour of the end of the game. They face Hull City in the FA Cup quarter-finals next week which, for all the joy that their Capital One Cup run has brought them, asks tricky questions of Poyet.
He was brought in by Ellis Short to save the club from relegation. Somehow along the way he has conspired to take them a long way in two cup runs, which could yet make the key mission even more difficult as the fixtures pile up.
At least for Sunderland, this was a game and a cup run that meant something. For some clubs, the League Cup has had all the emotional value of a souvenir picked up in duty-free. It was a good final, although what follows now is more important for both. Can City win their games in hand over Chelsea? Can they overturn the deficit to Barcelona?
For Poyet, the challenge is different. He has transformed Sunderland but his American boss employed him to keep the club in the Premier League. Afterwards, Poyet said he was most delighted his team had not shot itself in the foot. “I’m proud of them,” he said. “I didn’t want any mistakes or bad decisions, sending-offs or own goals.”
It was not too much to ask for one day at Wembley but the challenge is to maintain it in the 12 league games that lie ahead.
Manchester City (4-4-2): Pantilimon 6; Zabaleta 6, Demichelis 4, Kompany 6, Kolarov 6; Nasri 6, Toure 7, Fernandinho 6, Silva 7 (Garcia, 77); Dzeko 5 (Negredo, 87), Aguero 6 (Navas 6, 58).
Substitutes not used: Hart (gk), Lescott, Clichy, Milner.
Sunderland (4-5-1): Mannone 6; Bardsley 6, Brown 6, O'Shea 6, Alonso 6; Larsson 6 (Fletcher 7, 60), Cattermole 7 (Giaccherini, 77); Johnson 6 (Gardner, 60), Ki 7, Colback 7; Borini 7.
Substitutes not used: Celustka, Vergini, Scocco, Ustari (gk).
Man of the match: Ki
Booked: Manchester City Negredo Sunderland Alonso