Comment: Manchester United's fragility and despair was apparent after a minute of Capital One Cup defeat to Sunderland

David Moyes saw his side lost the first leg of the semi-final 2-1

the stadium of light

Wes Brown and John O'Shea know the value the League Cup can bring to Manchester United when the walls are falling in on their season.

When they appeared for Sir Alex Ferguson in the final of the 2006 edition, Ruud van Nistelrooy was at war with the club and his omission from the Millennium Stadium showpiece was the main drama of the day. But O'Shea and Darren Fletcher were beginning to assert themselves as young professionals, Cristiano Ronaldo was waiting in the wings and Wayne Rooney was bursting into the big time. His two goals against Wigan Athletic in that final helped him to his first piece of silverware.

The United that Brown and O'Shea watched from their central defensive stations is changed utterly. Ferguson, chewing his lip under a maroon beret and seemingly unable to conjure words to say to Bryan Robson, found his decision to release the defenders momentarily vindicated.

Their collective muscle was unable to prevent Nemanja Vidic storming through them to head an equaliser. But nothing could mask another desperate staging post on the extraordinary fall of a club whose fans say will "never die" but which is doing precisely that.

If success in football were a measure of a collective desire to make an outcome happen, the United supporters would have had their team home.

The gloom around Wearside about Sunderland's dreadful inconsistency and apparent Premier League doom left their stadium echoing with emptiness, with only 32,000 of the 49,000 seats filled as the team sought overtures of 1973, the year of the Wembley Cup final which they have experienced only twice since.

It was the visiting fans – 4,000 of them – who filled the place with noise. They were singing about their 20 titles in the pubs two hours before kick-off and their noise rose to a crescendo as the acrid smell of the flares cut through the night air. In the way that these things often transpire, the full cacophony coincided with that Vidic equaliser.

But we all know that noise and desire is not enough. Those fans' team is written through with feelings of fragility and despair: that much was telegraphed from the 50th second, when Tom Cleverley cursed himself for his first mishit pass of another sub-standard night.

He was still shaking his head a full minute later. The weakness became emphatically apparent as a Sunderland side hardly buoyed by belief either took control. Ki-Sung yeung is building a reputation which was further enhanced here.

Moyes did not find the leaders he required after the ignominy of Sunday's FA Cup home defeat to Swansea. A sense of history was required; the sentiment that his players were damned if they would suffer their first three-match losing run since the one sustained at the end of the 2000-01 season – by a team that had already lifted the title.

It didn't come. Moyes' protestations about the winning penalty were hollow when his defence somehow conspired to allow Sebastian Larsson the chance of the night, unchallenged to shoot in the area.

Sunderland's struggle to blend the 13 summer signings – 12 foreign, the majority youthful and only five with previous Premier League experience – are proof that the money Moyes is being urged to spend can bring its difficulties. But Sunderland have a habit of yielding results against big clubs. They have now beaten Manchester City, Newcastle and Everton in the league; Chelsea and Manchester United in this cup. They had a sense of entitlement that United simply lacked.

United's chief executive, Ed Woodward, is willing to respond opportunistically in this month's transfer market to arrest this crisis, though generating those opportunities is the challenge. Football was a far less global place when Ferguson signed Henrik Larsson on loan in January 2007, after his chief scout Jim Lawlor had pointed out that it was a waste for the player to be plying his trade at Helsingborgs when he belonged on a bigger stage. When the Swedish club wouldn't sell, Ferguson asked Lawlor to ask about a loan. The same kind of creative thinking is required again.

Though the tie is not over, the positives for United are hard to summon up. Sunderland have no reason to fear Old Trafford in two weeks. And even if United can climb that mountain, Manchester City will probably lie in wait at Wembley. That could mean another public exposition of how far they have fallen.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
A referee issues a red card
football
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'